No one can ever really know another person, not even a husband and wife going on 45 years of marriage. After all, a couple is composed of two individuals. The notion anyone can wholly understand and know anyone’s other half would call for psychic powers, not to mention a front-row seat to their lives from the day they were born. In 45 Years, the new film by British director Andrew Haigh, a wife (Charlotte Rampling) and husband (Tom Courtenay) have a confrontation with the husband’s past on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary. It’s not just the past that has to be reckoned with, but what it means to their present and the entire history of their marriage.
Kate and Geoff Mercer are happily married but lulled into a cozy sense of complacency. Though they never started a family, they have plenty of friends in the bucolic English village they reside in with whom to celebrate their 45 years. The party is a week away when our story kicks off. As Kate returns from walking their German shepherd one morning, she finds Geoff sitting at the kitchen table reading a letter. “They found her … My Katya,” he says.
The story of Geoff and Katya is nothing new to Kate, but she had long shelved that memory in the past. She hardly remembers Geoff ever mentioning a Katya to her. He has to remind Kate that Katya was his previous girlfriend, and she died during a hiking accident in 1962. However, the letter reveals, her body has now been found, perfectly preserved in a glacier. Thus, a specter is introduced to a married couple who are about to celebrate their lives together and all that they have shared in that time. Despite her being long dead, the memory of Katya becomes a profound interloper in the marriage. Kate never expected to be considering her past with Geoff alongside the ghost of a possible other life that her husband might have led.
Adapted from a short story by David Constantine, Haigh walks a delicate balance in dealing with an eruption in a longstanding marriage. Kate and Geoff are mostly stoic, and it seems like they are hardly bothered by it, but it’s always there, in their routines. Small things, like Geoff’s sudden curiosity in global warming and Kate reconciling her imagination with his facts, like the color of Katya’s hair. Their trauma reveals itself in these moments, as the two deal not only with the news but a quiet pain of having to look at the small cracks in their decades of marriage. With the news, Geoff apologizes to her in advance for needing a cigarette. She says nothing, even though it was his smoking habit that put him in the hospital, delaying their 40th anniversary party by five years. Not much is said between these two because when you are in a marriage as pacific as the one they are in, the time to stir up confrontation has long past.
As in Constantine’s story, the events in the movie take place over the course of a week. But the writer/director opens the world up of this couple to include friends and throws in the anniversary party to crucial effect. A week is but a minuscule moment in their life, but it’s long enough to rattle Kate. These performances are both tempered with a quiet sort of suffering, and both actors deliver amazing performances of a rich kind of restraint.
Like the couple, the film’s tone is always soft and even. Geoff and Kate never yell at one another. Likewise, the film has a quietness that forgoes an extradiegetic score and features patient editing by Jonathan Alberts,who allows scenes and the actors a moment to breathe, capturing the characters’ complex but quiet contemplation. Their tension is only ever transmitted in tones of frustration. Geoff stutters or sighs, as Kate probes him with questions to uncover his thoughts and come to grips with this new iteration of man coming to form before her eyes.
It’s not all about their alienation from one another. You always have a sense that this is a strong couple, and the film gives value to tender moments of simple, shared intimacy, which can be contrasted with new revelations between them. At one point Geoff soothes Kate’s nostalgia for their past when she can’t find many pictures of them over the years. “You used to say that everybody taking pictures of themselves prevented anyone from having fun,” he reminds her. Yet, she learns of his stealing away in the middle of the night to the attic for a private slide show of his hiking trip with Katya. When Kate investigates that attic alone, she discovers his set-up one day. She fires up the slide projector, for one of the film’s most incredible scenes, a long take with the camera fixed on Rampling’s face. The slides are kept hidden from the audience but still cast an eerie glow on Kate, as the reversed image of a blurred Katya shrouds her in a beautiful meta moment. As she pauses on these slides, Rampling rises to the long take with a profound look of curiosity, consideration and concern. It’s the film’s biggest confrontation, and it happens in near silence, with only the click-clack of the changing slides for a soundtrack.
Kate’s no fool, however. With her age and experience with Geoff, comes a wisdom. Despite her struggles with the revelations about Geoff and Katya (and there are many others that the film has in store) she harbors an awareness that feeling threatened by Geoff’s past is irrational. Rampling captures the discombobulation with vulnerable dignity, building to a surprisingly cathartic finish at film’s end that never betrays the film’s low-key tone, leaving the viewer with yet another instance that goes to show learning and understanding one’s other half in a marriage is a rich, never-ending journey.
45 Years (95 minutes, Rated R) opened in South Florida, yesterday, January 22, at the Bill Cosford Cinema, in the University of Miami’s Coral Gables campus, Miami’s Tower Theater (which is showing the film with Spanish subtitles), O Cinema Miami Beach and Regal Cinemas South Beach 18. On Friday, January 29, the film arrives in Broward County at Cinema Paradiso Hollywood. IFC Films provided us with a DVD screener for awards consideration, last year.