THE FORTY FIVE years referred to in the movie title is that of the wedding anniversary of Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay). It’s an innocuous enough event (the last one having been cancelled due to his bypass operation) in the lives of a pleasant, happy, retired couple. But then a letter arrives informing Geoff that the body of a woman whom he had dated fifty years ago –Katya- has been discovered. It was fifty years ago when, on a hike somewhere up in the Swiss Alps, she slid, suddenly, into a crevasse and disappeared. And now, the Alps slowly melting as they are with the warming world, she has reemerged, entombed in ice.
The past has returned to cuckold the present.
The Geoff we’re introduced to is a man who seems to be shuffling toward senility and death (“the problem with old age” he tells one of his friends “is that you lose purposefulness”). He has been struggling to read Kiekegaard, the Danish philosopher. But with the arrival of the letter and the resurgence of a love long held in deep freeze like the ghost of Katya, he changes. Purpose returns. Turns out he is Katya’s next of kin. The authorities thought they’d been married. It’s a small fact he ‘thought’ he’d told his wife. He becomes secretive, petulant, and prone to prevarication. He starts smoking again. At nights, Kate discovers, he has begun to slip out of bed to their attic where, via a slide show of Katya, he can relive his past, give in to his memories and wallow… perhaps fall in love all over again with a woman dead for fifty years. Perhaps even Kate was just a wannabe version of Katya…the names are more or less the same after all.
Andrew Haigh’s brilliant movie (from a short story by David Constantine) riffs on Kiekegaard’s central philosophical construct: “Life can only be understood backward but it must be lived forward”. The issue isn’t so much that the past is always part of the present (T. S. Eliot re-construed Kiekegaard in “The Four Quartets” with his words that could be the tag line for the movie: “All time is eternally present”). Indeed the whole point of an anniversary is the celebration of the elasticity of love from past to present (and Haigh’s soundscape wonderful knits present and past together with all the hits of the 60’s.) The issue rather is that Geoff’s past is a secret unshared.
It’s as though he’s having an affair with a memory.
The discovery by Kate of Geoff’s secretly rekindled romance alters the dynamic of their relationship. The couple we met pre the arrival of the letter was one in which she was definitely the one in charge: the dynamic vibrant and somewhat superior one, guiding – as is expected of wives – her ageing, mumbling spouse (For the first half of the movie, Geoff isn’t greeted with the usual words “Hello, how are you?” but with the words “Are you OK?”). After the letter, as the reality dawns upon her that Geoff is escaping his present – her – for a better past –Katya – the wind in her sails dies away. You feel as though she’s imitating the actions of a person, distractedly planning their engagement party; but still maybe clinging to the hope that Geoff’s new found passion is just a phase (he has the desire to make love again…just not the prowess).
The big moment is the anniversary celebration where the song to which they’d danced forty five years ago was “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”. For some reason we all remember that song as one of those uber romantic songs. But as they dance, the darkness of the words sink in and the secrecy of the past finally trump the present:
“Now laughing friends deride
Tears I cannot hide.
So I smile and say
When a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes”
“45 Years” seems to be quietly reeling in awards: both Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay won awards recently at the Silver Berlin Bear Festival. And it won Best British Film at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. They’re well deserved. Rampling and Courtenay’s acting is impeccable: understated, nuanced, compellingly believable (and interestingly, miles away from the showy agonies demanded of an Oscar).
The movie itself is a jewel of movie-making craftsmanship.
In the first scene, we see a jaunty Kate returning home (a nice cottage in Norfolk). She’s greeted by the postman and their very average, very pedestrian exchange maps out the entire movie’s concerns: she remarks to him how unusually early he is. He replies that it’s because of the newborn. Oh of course, she replies. She’d forgotten. She implores him to give her heartfelt best (she says she really means it) to his wife. She bids him goodbye and reminds him to call her Kate. It’s been a long time since you were a student, she concludes.
As she enters the house, we meet Geoff pouring over the letter
In two minutes, we not only get a sense of her (she was a teacher, strongly empathetic, brisk and energetic, but childless) and him (he’s bumbling, confused, trying to understand a letter written in German and given to prevarication), but the themes of birth and death, of the links between the past and the present, are immediately announced.
And so it continues for the entire movie… the references to Kiekegaard, his regression to smoking (…gets in your eyes?), her tender caring, like a mother to her child, when he cuts his thumb etc. are all part of the fabric of a movie where there’s not a wasted scene; where what passes for the casualness of everyday life or everyday conversation is always loaded with meaning.
So nice to find an adult movie among this summer’s morass of mediocrity.