Human Truths, Humorous Tasks: Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones in Hope Springs

By Daniel Garrett

Hope Springs
Directed by David Frankel
Screenplay by Vanessa Taylor
Columbia, 2012

Change is hard. It is both great and sad to see Meryl Streep age: great as she has given many vital film, theater, and television performances, and it is very good that she is living a long life and has more to give, and sad as it is impossible not to recall her youth and how glorious, how perfect, that could be. Meryl Streep, one of her profession’s standard bearers, an admired technician and a chameleon, was never a favorite of mine, but she has my respect, and some of my love; and she has grown warmer, more simply human, in her work. The woman she plays in Hope Springs, Kay, is soft-spoken and sorrowing as she faces the fading of her marriage to the man played by Tommy Lee Jones, Arnold, a blunt, distracted, practical accountant. Kay is one of those women who have done what they were told was decent and right, and she was rewarded, and is finding the limit of that existence. The couple has a safe, stable life, without passion. Streep disappears into this woman, whose marriage has lost its romance and become dull routine, and who has decided that she wants a real marriage again.

Kay and Arnold sleep in separate beds. Arnold, who likes golf, is resigned to what they have become, having surrendered hope for his desires and fantasies. They must find their way back to each other; and Kay, the housewife Streep plays, a woman with flat hair and often far from flattering clothes, gets them plane tickets to visit a New England counselor, Doctor Feld (Steve Carell); and in Great Hope Springs, a small lovely town, the resulting focus on emotion and sex gives the film an intensity that is not usual for work with adults in late middle-age. It has risks and power. It takes courage to speak tender truths, as Kay and Arnold do here.

The man and woman in the film, a husband and wife, parents of adult children, are people many would think of as old. Their talk of love and sex in the film Hope Springs is direct, painful and funny, but the two married people do not want to hurt each other, and the fear and anger and need beneath the talk, breaking through the restraint, are what give it dignity and import. The film has a leisurely pace with a nice score, interspersed with a huge lot of popular songs of emotion and energy. The songs confirm what is at stake in a relationship, the excitement of that. The film’s languor allows us to know its characters and their relationships and situations. When Streep’s Kay is angry with her difficult husband, she escapes to a bar in the town of Great Hope Springs, and the bartender—Elisabeth Shue— quickly takes a public survey of bar patrons and shows Kay that many people are living without sex. That surprising fact is one of many details that make this a startling and fun film.

It is difficult to know another person, to keep understanding alive. Loneliness is more common than is admitted. Our pain rouses us and can ruin us. What the couple does together in Hope Springs is act: they travel together, speak with a counselor, and begin to touch each other again. Tommy Lee Jones has a burst of brimming hurt and, later, brief light dancing. Streep enacts a sexual candor I do not recall in her early films. What happens between two people is revelation.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.