Wrapping up 2015: 45 Years
Take your most cherished, important relationship. Draw a line from now back until the day you met. What do you see? Memories. A collection of past events that shape your relationships. The present is fleeting and the future isn’t here yet. We use the past to try to shape what comes next. What if the very beginning of your relationships were suddenly changed? Adjust the angle of any line just a bit and it no longer aligns with what it used to. By the end of the line, it’s in an unrecognizable place. 45 Years, an extraordinary film written and directed by Andrew Haigh, is about a couple whose four-and-a-half decade marriage is shaken by an adjustment to that line, a literal unearthing of a tragedy that occurred before they met.
Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling) are less than a week away from their 45th wedding anniversary when he gets a letter. It’s in German, but he can make out enough of it to get the news. Fifty years ago, he went to the Alps with his girlfriend, a German woman named Katya. She fell into a crevasse and died, her body disappearing in ice and snow. He moved on, married Kate. They are now living in apparent contentment. Then comes the letter, letting Geoff know that Katya’s body has been found, preserved in the ice.
Over the next few days, Geoff and Kate attempt to reckon with this news. Geoff vacillates between going to see Katya’s body in Switzerland and not. Kate tries to live her life as if nothing has changed until she can no longer. It’s clear that Katya was one of the two most important people in all of Geoff’s life. It’s possible that she is still the most important.
What a stark, human story this is. Its premise is so specific and odd (based on a short story by David Constantine) that it could easily have run off the rails into melodrama. But Courtenay and Rampling deliver such measured, vibrant performances that the film feels like it’s happening in the present moment. Their marriage isn’t suddenly upended by this discovery. The ramifications develop more slowly. Geoff needs time to discover just how much his grief over Katya’s death still affects him. Kate needs time to figure out how much she needs to reevaluate her position in Geoff’s life, and how much what he never told her about Katya matters to her.
Their conversations about the topic are realistic. They feel rooted in the decades of their relationship. Not one word sounds like a writer trying to manufacture drama. Kate tries to be pragmatic at first. Geoff tries to act like the news is only a fleeting worry. Their nightly conversations in bed reveal truths neither wants to acknowledge. Their attic becomes a sanctuary of secrets for them both. Kate realizes that Geoff is looking at old pictures of Katya in the attic while she sleeps, and demands to see them. She looks at a photo, puts it down, and goes back to bed. For a moment, both of them betrayed their true feelings more than they intended, and she seems frightened by that.
45 Years leans heavily on Courtenay and Rampling to carry it, to give us an understanding of their marriage in only a few scenes, and to invest us in it. They deliver. Consider a scene where Geoff wonders aloud if the library has books about climate change. In the next scene, Geoff and Kate are in a cafe, with Geoff reading a large book on the subject, talking about an impending glacial tsunami. You could argue that the dialogue is symbolic about Katya, whose body was found in a glacier. However, my biggest takeaway was how absolutely convincing, even charming these two were as a couple, and how realistic this scene was. Characters are so rarely allowed to talk to one another about the silly little things real people talk about. Their gestures and mannerisms carry decades of understanding, love, and frustration.
Later, there is a stunning sequence when Kate finds old slides with pictures of Katya. She looks at them through a projector while Geoff is out of the house. Rampling’s reactions to the images feature some of the best acting you’ll see in a film this year. Her heart seems to break three ways, betrayed only in slight shifts in her eyes.
The ambiguity of the ending of 45 Years might frustrate some. I thought it worked. The final shot is a stunner, a gorgeous, dialogue-free unbroken take that aims for poetry over definitive conclusions. 45 Years does not attempt to answer if Geoff and Kate’s marriage is forever altered, or even destroyed, by the re-introduction of Katya into their narrative. The story takes place entirely in the days leading up to and during their anniversary party. The full effect of Katya cannot realistically play out in that time. This isn’t a story about the aftermath of a tsunami; it’s about how the ripples of the beginning of the story become the visible crest of a wave at the end.