By Preston Wilder
Note to readers: 45 Years isn’t in commercial release. It screens next Sunday at the Friends of the Cinema Society in Nicosia (then gets one more screening, on Tuesday May 24), so it’s taken a special dispensation – albeit from myself to myself – even to review it today. Still, there is only Captain America this week, so we do have a vacancy, and it’d be a shame if this hugely-acclaimed, Oscar-nominated British drama fell by the wayside. It’s a slightly contrived, inorganic film, the kind where every detail is transparently meant to represent something bigger – but its spare narrative brims with unspoken layers and it also shines a light on a group not often represented on the big screen, the “decrepit” over-65s.
Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are one such couple, days away from celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary – but something happens on the Monday before the party on Saturday, Geoff gets a letter in German informing him that the body of Katia has been found in a glacier in Switzerland. Katia was a girl he loved back in 1962, before he met his wife; they were mountain-climbing in the Alps and she fell down a fissure – a crack in the ice – her body remaining undiscovered until the ice started melting due to global warming. “My Katia,” Geoff calls her, with unconscious tenderness – and Kate doesn’t mind talking about her predecessor (after all, she reasons, she can hardly be cross about something that happened before she and Geoff even met) yet, for all her sangfroid, Katia’s ghost slowly takes over her marriage, tainting all that it touches.
The film’s deepest pleasure lies in how little it makes explicit, and how much we infer. Kate is a former teacher, with a teacher’s severity; Geoff is a former factory worker, an Old-Labour lefty – and it’s clear that she gets a kick from his working-class grumpiness, using it to shut up the annoying little man at the reception hall (my husband says a top table is “bourgeois,” she says smugly) or grinning at the memory of when he called their friend a fascist for defending Thatcher. Their dynamic unfolds before us, burnished by 45 years of life together. And there’s also the fact that they don’t have children – a fact that’s seemingly irrelevant, then brought into focus by the film’s pivotal scene (which I won’t spoil). I wish we had some photos in the house, muses Kate at one point, maybe photos of the dogs when they were puppies – a subtle echo of what another woman might say, viz. photos of the kids when they were little. What happened there? Did they choose to remain childless, or did something go wrong? It’s a mystery, and all the more potent for it.
45 Years might’ve been called ‘Six Days’, because that’s how long it takes for a life to unravel. It’s much more Kate’s story than Geoff’s (he’s mostly unseen when he tells the story of Katia; the focus is on her, listening) – and Rampling, a famously ‘hard’ actress, is nonetheless able to suggest that Kate’s inner breakdown comes from her own self-doubt as much as any anger at her husband’s betrayal. Kate is afraid that she might’ve been second-best, merely a substitute for the Swiss girl with the similar name. (Did Katia have blond hair? she asks with a hint of desperation. No, he replies, she had dark hair, like yours.) Geoff doesn’t do anything wrong per se – but he gets up in the middle of the night to search for an old photo of Katia, and goes to a travel agent (without telling Kate) asking about flights to Switzerland. He even starts smoking again, like he did when he was younger. At one point the couple reminisce about their first meeting: she was “a bloody knockout” and he looked so cool, with the cigarette dangling for his mouth – but smoking is now verboten and the cigarette seems to belong to another time, the time of Katia.
This is a very schematic movie; there’s nothing spontaneous about it, and some of the casual dialogue thuds, as if writer-director Andrew Haigh tended to lose his footing when forced to write simple (as opposed to Significant) scenes – but it’s also a subtle mini-symphony, thrumming with rich, haunting undertones. It ends on a gesture that speaks volumes, and the best-ever cinematic use of the Moody Blues’ ‘Go Now’. All I could think of was a fissure – a crack in the ice, or in a marriage – and a woman vanishing, with only the hint of a scream, into the abyss below.
DIRECTED BY Andrew Haigh
STARRING Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James
UK 2015 95 mins