UK (2015) Dir. Andrew Haigh
We all have a past but to have it come back to haunt you when you are in your twilight years doesn’t make it any easier to deal with, especially if there is a Pandora’s Box of secrets that one would rather were not unearthed.
The title of this film, an adaptation of the short story In Another Country by David Constantine, refers to the wedding anniversary due to be celebrated by elderly couple Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay). Set over six days, Geoff receives a letter informing him that the body of his girlfriend Katya from 50 years ago had been found in a glacier, after she fell into a crevasse during a walk across the Alps.
While Kate knew all about Katya, she didn’t know all of the details of the relationship, believing what happened before she and Geoff met was kept in the past. But Geoff’s behaviour begins to arouse suspicion in Kate and when her gentle probing doesn’t yield any results, she takes matters into her own hands to learn more about Katya.
It is usually the province of Hollywood rom-coms or Asian horror films to have the third person in a love triangle be deceased, so to employ this tact for slow burning and tacit drama seems unusual. In this instance however, Katya never appears on screen at all and doesn’t need to – her metaphorical presence is felt by both Geoff and Kate and is enough to create the first crack in their relationship.
Geoff is suddenly flooded with memories of her while Kate is feeling threatened by the effect she appears to have on her husband. In reality this shouldn’t be a big deal unless Geoff has something to hide, which is Kate’s concern. The couple never had kids – only dogs – which doesn’t appear to have been a problem but Kate is presented to us as the ultimate “grace under pressure” type, so we can’t be sure this isn’t hurting her.
Their 40th wedding anniversary party was cancelled at the last minute due to Geoff’s ill-health hence this party, but the truths exposed and shared over the course of the five days leading up to this gathering threaten a second cancellation. From little things such as Geoff smoking again to his more provocative secret visit to the travel agent, Kate has plenty of cause to feel shut out – but is this paranoia and lack of trust on her part?
Where the conceit lies is in the lack of communication between Geoff and Kate, neither one being fully aware of how and why the other is suffering. As outside observers we get to see the whole picture yet nothing is black and white and it is this understanding we have to determine, with the script deftly laying out sufficient evidence for both parties being in the right or wrong.
The case against Geoff is presented with less ambiguity, his descent into curmudgeonly behaviour, even towards friends George (David Sibley) and Lena (Geraldine James), not helping much. For Kate it is Geoff’s reluctance to open up that is hurting her but is she being too sensitive for her own good? As alluded to earlier, it is a truthful but devastatingly direct answer to a salient question that eventually seals their fate.
In just his third feature length film, director Andrew Haigh skilfully ekes out Constantine’s short story into a quietly absorbing 95 minute outing that has the sobering tone of a rural French drama. The Norfolk Broads may not be Aubeterre-sur-Dronne but the flat landscape and dour Autumnal atmosphere provide the perfect backdrop for this tale, the stillness and unhurried nature becoming a character in its own right.
The colour palette at home is muted with heavy emphasis on safe warm colours while the décor is simple, smart and nothing ostentatious. The sense of comfort imbued in the home which extends to the early stages of the relationship gradually darkens once the dispute sets in. A simple scene involving Kate climbing into the attic to find out what secrets Geoff is hiding comes across far more sinister than it should, a product of the eerie silence and Rampling’s weary, beleaguered body language.
Part of the film’s beauty is that this story involves a couple in their 70’s and not a younger, handsome and virile couple chosen purely for the box office. The length of time passed for the secrets to be this devastating is a credibility only an older couple could accommodate, coupled with the dignified way the fallout is handled – there is no screaming or histrionics here, just nuance hurt emotion.
With two acting veterans at his disposal the rewards are there on screen for both Haigh and the audience. Charlotte Rampling puts on a superb poker face behind which Kate hides her feelings that are being thrown about like Brock Lesnar taking another opponent to Suplex City, complimented by Tom Courtenay’s almost bumbling Geoff, a terrifically understated performance of a man trapped by his past memories.
The pacing is slow and there is no real second gear, putting this film out of reach for impatient viewers, but Haigh ends things on a stunning if oblique final shot which, even if you don’t decipher its possible meaning, is a haunting frame to end on. Whether it provides the closure expected or feels deliberately obtuse will be subjective but it is apropos to the European sensibilities evocative in this film.
Because of the marquee value of the two leads mainstream audiences may not enjoy or appreciate what they get with 45 Years, but by the same token, discerning film fans are assured top notch performances which will serves as validation for checking out this thoughtful, moody British made drama.