Hope does indeed spring eternal, without any sense of discernment or taste. Nothing guarantees ghastly with quite such certainty as a comedy drama about Meryl Streep forcing her husband, Tommy Lee Jones, to attend counselling in an attempt to reignite the spark.

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You anticipate the kind of plush, frictionless vacuums that Nancy Meyer is an expert at forging. But, though the fixtures and fittings are similar, there are some distinctly truthful human moments found within.

It’s a surprisingly sparse affair. There are only three characters, all they do is talk and one of those is just there to say variations of “Let’s talk about that.” Steve Carrell is perfectly cast as the marriage guidance guru: smug, complacent, patronising and with a big space in his face where a fist should be. Which effectively leaves the whole film free for Streep and Jones.

Streep’s character is the one which has become her default late career avatar, a respectable but frustrated lady trying to squeeze a little bit more out of life.

Kay though is probably a bit more desperate and a little more subservient than other examples. After 31 years of marriage, they sleep in separate rooms; have no physical contact and not too much verbal contact either.

Tommy Lee Jones’ Arnold is a cartoon grump and he plays him like a shaved Neanderthal. Jones is 66 years old and occasionally looks a bit doddery even though he retains most of his gruff manly certainty. If The Expendables were real they’d all look like him. There is a surprising grace to his performance, watching the shutters on this boarded up property opening up briefly to explore the light before slamming back shut.

The headline story is of course Streep and Jones make magic from nothing, but perhaps there are a few nuggets of quality in Vanessa Taylor’s screenplay. Some of the reminiscences feel very truthful, and though it has all of the genre’s clichés out on display, it doesn’t always commit to them.

Hollywood recently chucked an Oscar in Streep’s direction for the precision mechanics of her Thatcher incarnation (which in the field of human achievement is a little like winning the Nobel prize for a serum that makes slugs indestructible) but it’s in roles like these, the ones without glory, the ones without hope, where you really see just how good these two are. When I left the cinema I was a little more in awe of them than when I came in.

HOPE SPRINGS (12A)

Director: David Frankel

Starring: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carrell, Elisabeth Shue and Mimi Rogers

Length: 99 mins

***

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