The night before last I saw William Nicholson‘s Hope Gap (Roadside, 3.6), an intelligent, fully felt, nicely layered domestic drama about the sad end of a nearly 30-year marriage in a small coastal town in England.

Annette Bening and Bill Nighy play the 60ish couple, and the gist is that they don’t part by mutual agreement — Nighy has fallen in love with a local woman (a somewhat younger widow) and proceeds to lower the boom on Bening over tea.

Both are excellent in a carefully proportioned and ruefully miserable sort of way, Bening in particular with her nicely vowelled British accent.

The story is based upon the breakup of Nicholson’s own parents when he was somewhere in his 20s, and how he found himself in the position of the anguished counselor and referee. Nicholson is played by Josh O’Connor (The Crown), who’s fully up to the level of his costars.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much the film stirred and engaged me, especially given the sappy-sounding title. Hope Gap sounds like some kind of contact-high film — a spirited feel-gooder about things working out for the better. That’s not what this is.

A much, much better title is The Retreat From Moscow, which is what Nicholson called the play version when it opened in late ’99 at the Chichester Festival Theatre. (Four years later it opened at Broadway’s Booth Theatre with John Lithgow, Eileen Atkins and Ben Chaplin in the lead roles.) Why it took Nicholson 17 or 18 years to film it is anyone’s guess.

Why was it called The Retreat From Moscow? Because it alludes to acts of cruelty that allow the living to survive. In 1812 Napoleon’s once-huge army was decimated by the Russian winter along with a lack of food and sufficient clothing — only 27,000 troops survived. Those who fell by the roadside were stripped by their comrades and left to die naked in the snow, and drivers of wagons carrying the French wounded sped up over bumpy road in hopes that they might fall off.

By the same token Nighy’s Edward sits down at the kitchen table and tells Bening’s Grace that they’re done — that he intends to move out because he’s fallen in love with Sally Roger‘s Angela. By any measure this is a brusque and hurtful move, but it also puts an end to a dry, unsatisfying union while allowing for a measure of newfound happiness between Edward and Angela.

When Grace angrily strolls into Edward and Angela’s home in Act Three, she asks the younger woman what she thought she was doing when she and Edward began to become involved. Angela replies, “I think I thought there were three unhappy people, and now there’s only one.” Whoa.

Some critics have complained that Hope Gap feels too “written”, too much like a filmed play. Except the writing is quite good. All the angles and regrets and after-thoughts emerge in just the right way. I suppose some will find it a bit too solemn and dreary, but when the dialogue is this well-honed and the acting is this affecting, I don’t see the problem.