Hope Springs

Hope Springs (12A)

When Mark (Brassed Off) Herman’s newest got its British premiere at the Bradford Film Festival a couple of months back audiences – like critics – were divided.

Some felt Herman had lost the edginess that had led to Brassed Off, Little Voice and, to a much lesser degree, Purely Belter. Others, by the same token, saw within Hope Springs a film that bucked the trend for so-called ‘rom-coms’ by cocking a snoop at what worldwide audiences have come to expect (and rely on) from American movies.

This wasn’t a cosy little affair that relied on familiar faces to buoy up lacklustre writing and a papier-mache plot. Instead it dwelt with painful honesty on the subject of lost love, betrayal, sadness and the overwhelming feeling of hurt that surfaces whenever someone is dumped. And it did it without the glossy, saccharine coating that generally smothers Hollywood movies.

Herman, who wrote the screenplay, adapted from Charles (The Graduate) Webb’s novel New Cardiff, as well as directing the film, takes battered hero Colin Ware (Colin Firth) from England to a small East Coast American town when his fiancée, Vera (Minnie Driver, playing to type as a snooty bitch) drops the bombshell that the marriage is off and she’s found another man.

Nursing more than a broken heart and a shattered male ego Colin throws himself into his art but finds himself drawn to nurse Mandy (Heather Graham), a bubbly blonde and the physical and mental antithesis of Vera. Their careful romance is bouncing along quite nicely until, out of the blue, Vera materialises hoping to effect a reconciliation.

As Herman’s first Stateside movie Hope Springs is to be applauded, though the gentility of the US locale means some of the harder-hitting elements of his past films have been sacrificed. Still, the quality of the writing, and the depth of characterisation – particularly in Firth’s weary, confused and put-upon hero – remains a constant.

Herman, still only in his 40s, remains one of the great hopes of modern British cinema. In Hope Springs he has proved that it is possible to break the constraints of the established and accepted romantic comedy to deliver a story that contains a love affair that embraces many of the standard and formulaic clichés – the love triangle, a spiteful and bitchy ex on the hunt, nosy small-town neighbours and a hapless hero who doesn’t know which way to turn – and transforms them into wonderfully comedic setpieces.

Those mistakenly expecting something akin to Pretty Woman, Maid in Manhattan or Two Weeks Notice should dig out their copies of Brassed Off and Little Voice, and watch them anew. That’s Herman’s forte: eccentricity, beautifully delivered one-liners, verbal barbs and intricately drawn characters that boast strength and reality in their construction.

It’s all there in Hope Springs. Throw in support from the likes of Oliver Platt and Mary Steenburgen and Herman’s latest can be seen for what is ultimately is – a successful Anglo-American amalgam and a calling card for Hollywood.

Maybe this time Los Angeles will wake up and give Herman something really meaty to get his teeth into.

Star rating: ***

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