45 Years
d. Andrew Haigh (2015)
The Criterion Collection

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.”

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling as Geoff and Kate Mercer

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.

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By | 2017-05-24T21:37:51+00:00 March 16th, 2017|Categories: Andrew Haigh|Tags: |9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Sean H March 18, 2017 at 8:26 pm

    Just a quick comment on this one as I remember going out to see this last year and being thoroughly disappointed. The actors were excellent, of course, they’re thoroughgoing pros of the highest order, but the premise was such a laughable case of insecurity and shallowness that amounted to nothing. It simply seemed implausible unless the character played by Rampling was severely mentally ill. It was almost as if the film was compiled by a vicious sexist (and I did find it interesting that the director is gay) trying to put one of our great actresses through as many gauntlets as possible in order to portray women as inane, silly, vain, and petty. It was #2 on Metacritic last year so I’m sure if there’s any response, it will most likely be in the film’s defense, but I’m just curious if anyone else had a similar negative reaction to what I viewed as just about as overrated a film as I’ve watched in recent years.

  2. Trevor March 18, 2017 at 10:21 pm

    You’ve read my review, so you know I don’t see this the same way that you do, but I’ll respond anyway. The film is based on a short story and, as such, is rendered a bit like a fable. It’s got its realistic acting, but the premise is completely outlandish and metaphorical, so it didn’t strain my credulity at all. It’s kind of like Bergman’s Winter Light: someone wakes up and realizes that they’re not in the relationship they thought they were in, and things come crashing down. I don’t read this as sexist either, since Rampling’s character didn’t come off to me as inane, silly, vain, or petty — she’s probably the least of any of those things as she’s ever been in her life. I’m also not sure what’s so interesting about the director being gay in that context, which has more than a whiff of bias on your part, Sean.

    Anyway, we’ve contrasted quite a bit before, so please don’t take my response as offense on my part. I’m always grateful for your takes since, at the very least, they make me question my own position, and at best — and most often — make me learn a great deal I missed before.

  3. David March 18, 2017 at 11:58 pm

    Trevor, I have not seen the film yet, but intend to do so. Around the time the film was released I did, however, read the short story it’s based on. I recall that the discovery of Katya and the effect it has reminded me a bit of the memory that ends the James Joyce story “The Dead”. It does not work in precisely the same way, but in both cases the recollection of a long dead person arouses strong emotions. Gabriel in “The Dead” and Mrs Mercer in “In Another Country” both seem to feel some fear that their relationship, despite it’s longevity and superficial success, might not be able to match the true and passionate one that was cut short by death, in both cases due to the cold.
    .
    In “In Another Country” there also is something interesting about the names Katya and Kate being so similar and the fact that the only time we are told Kate’s first name is at the very end of the story (she is referred to as “Mrs. Mercer” until the final page). It had the effect for me reading the story of shifting the perspective from one of mere jealousy to one where she might somehow identify herself with the dead girl. I don’t know if the film conveyed that same feeling.
    .
    Concerns about sexism seem very oddly out of place. The film received near universal praise from critics, both male and female, and the idea that it is sexist is not one they raised. Given Sean’s occasional problem of sexist criticism I chalk this up as a quirk of his, not something contained in the film. The homophobic parenthetical seems to further suggest it is just his quirk.
    .
    Finally, I am surprised you call the premise of the story “completely outlandish and metaphorical”. It is, after all, based on a true event of the discovery of a body preserved in ice in France and discovered many decades later. In reading the short story I did not have any trouble taking this premise literally, but perhaps the film plays differently.

  4. Sean H March 19, 2017 at 1:46 am

    Just for the record, noting someone’s sexuality is not “homophobic.”

  5. David March 19, 2017 at 8:05 am

    “It was almost as if the film was compiled by a vicious sexist (and I did find it interesting that the director is gay)”
    .
    Finding the sexuality of the director “interesting” as a comment related to your belief that it was made by a “vicious sexist” is as clearly homophbic as you can get. Sean, you clearly have problems with women and gay people whether you admit it or not. Just for the record.

  6. Dennis Lang March 19, 2017 at 7:14 pm

    Just tuned in. Sean H and David, you two are a blast! Great fun (although I suspect the ad hominem stuff can get out of control). Read about the flick but haven’t seen it. I do recall “Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” and “Night Porter” in their original release about 50 years ago. Wonderful careers for each of these performers..

    Of course, Trevor as always, the master diplomat!

  7. Trevor Berrett March 20, 2017 at 12:07 pm

    Thanks, Dennis!

    David, as for finding the underlying premise “completely outlandish,” perhaps I overstated it a bit. I do think that having the Swiss authorities contact Geoff because they’ve found the body of his girlfriend in a glacier nearly fifty years after her death is a bit unlikely. I know that he said they were married, but I’ve never met any bureaucratic office to go to any lengths unless there’s some clear legal necessity like an actual marriage certificate. That said, I don’t think it’s out of the question.

    More importantly, I didn’t have a problem with it at all, whether it’s likely to actually happen or is meant as a strong metaphorical spur to get to the heart of the matter. I’m good either way. It happened to this couple, and it led to this nuanced rethinking of the marriage by Kate. I loved it!

  8. David March 20, 2017 at 9:37 pm

    Trevor, that explanation makes sense. It might well be that it was not meant metaphorically but that the author and director recognize that it is not likely, but decided it was a small enough detail that they could fudge it. I tried to think of a more realistic way to get around it (like the authorities contact a living sibling of Katya’s who then contacts Geoff), but without changing his relationship to her or without adding another character that might get in the way I didn’t see a good answer. So maybe we go with the fudge. I’m still looking forward to seeing the film, when I eventually get around to it.

  9. SY March 21, 2017 at 2:43 pm

    The film struck me as falling short. We were presented with an extremely dramatic premise, and the characters’ actions were too predictable. The claim that “all men cry at such events” (I recall a friend of Kate’s saying something of the sort?) was a grisly one, yet that Kate needed such a blow to the face to reach it made it way less powerful.
    It’s interesting that Trevor brought up “The Piano Tuner’s Wives”. For me that story wouldn’t be half as good if Belle didn’t do what she did at the end. It is the peculiar and heartbreaking moral stasis the couple found themselves in that lifted the story out of self-wallowing, and gave it the dignity it has. Likewise, that David brought up “The Dead” is also interesting, because the theme there is very different (much bleaker, much more ominous). It seems to me that “45 Years” couldn’t decide which kind of story it wanted to tell, and succeeded in doing neither. The ending had felt glorious to me at the moment, but I doubt that very much was confounded by how much I wanted to like the movie in the first place.
    On a separate note, I saw “Weekend” before this (also by Andrew Haigh) and liked it much better!

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