When Andrew Haigh’s beautifully calibrated film 45 Years begins, we meet Geoff and Kate Mercer (played perfectly by Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, who both won acting prizes at the Berlin Film Festival for the film), a couple on the verge of their 45th wedding anniversary. However, in the week leading up to the celebration, a long buried bit of Geoff’s past unexpectedly surfaces, threatening even this long relationship. Now, stories with that basic premise are a dime a dozen. That’s not to say they are bad, but they are usually somewhat predictable: some secret love, some infidelity, some hidden life, a child. A lot of the tension is built as the secret is being unburied. That’s not the case with 45 Years.
There is another woman, yes, but it’s something more ordinary and yet stranger than the secret love affair plot. It’s more ordinary because the other woman is no secret: Kate has always known about Katya, a woman Geoff loved but who has been out of the picture for decades. Also, there was no illicit affair: Geoff loved Katy, and Katya died, before Geoff and Kate ever met. It’s stranger because Katya’s body — no, let’s not say Katya’s body — Katya has been found in a glacier, perfectly preserved, after nearly fifty years. She and Geoff were out hiking the Swiss Alps one day in the early 1960s when Katya slipped through a crevasse.
The film begins with Geoff sitting down at the breakfast table reading a letter written in German. When Kate comes in from her morning walk, Geoff says simply, “They’ve found her.”
They each try to downplay the significance of this startling news. Yet it understandably disturbs Geoff, to the point he needs to smoke a cigarette, after an apology to Kate (they stopped smoking together, some time before). The death of a woman he loved must have been traumatic, and bringing it up again in this way is a kind of “violent confrontation with the past,” as the author of the source short story, David Constantine, says in his supplement to the film. Also, it’s beguiling: if he wanted to (and could manage the hike) Geoff could go see Katya as she was when he loved her, back when he was young and his life had so much promise, when he felt virility, when he smoked freely and with no need to apologize.
For Kate, who never knew Katya and who has never really liked to talk about her, Katya hasn’t ever taken shape. Now, though, her reappearance is unsettling, though it seems like such things should be easily pushed under the rug again. But she also recognizes, in ways that are uncomfortable at first and terrifying as the film goes on, this is physical evidence, perfectly preserved. She feels the natural jealousy, but it goes deeper; this is an existential crisis. It is a reminder that Kate’s life, up to this present celebration of 45 years with Geoff, is only by chance. It was unlikely. Perhaps it’s the figment. Their time together is not so well preserved.
Katya in a glacier is a clear metaphor for the reemergence of the past, suddenly, with no warning, preserved well enough to give the illusion that no time has gone by, even to stir feelings again. Is it subtle? Perhaps not, and there are a couple of other things that perhaps hit too hard (like when Kate is driving and “Young Girl, Get Out of My Mind” comes on the radio). But it’s perfect for getting us to the main attraction: Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. The subtleties comes from the performances, these aged actors blessing our screens with their incredible, nuanced performances that make this film the beautiful exploration of life’s concoction of love, memory, and time.
Eventually, Kate questions the validity of it all. Geoff’s love and interest in her doesn’t seem quite real. His reignited lust may be inspired by the woman forever young in the glacier. Even the smoking. Naturally, Geoff says he needs a smoke because he needs to clear his head a bit. But is it also because that’s who he was and he wants that back? Is he finally showing that this joint achievement of quitting was never his desire? And what of other joint accomplishments?
Rampling and Courtenay play it all with layers and layers of meaning. They don’t quite know what to make of it all. And the ending of the film . . . It’s one of the best I’ve seen in ages.
To bring this to the literary side of this site, I want to bring up my favorite short story of all time, William Trevor’s “The Piano Tuner’s Wives.” They are not the same story, of course, but the story and this film do a wonderful job showing just how the past can strip the present. I’ll end with this is from the story:
That Belle was the the one who was alive, that she was offered all a man’s affection, that she plundered his other woman’s possessions and occupied her bedroom and drove her car, should have been enough. It should have been everything, but as time went on it seemed to Belle to be scarcely anything at all.