Andrew Haigh’s quiet, two-person relationship tale won a lot of friends last year. A revelation from the past changes everything in the marriage of Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. We read the faces, read the gestures — just like we do in our own close relationships.
The Criterion Collection 861
2015/ Color / 1:85 widescreen / 95 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date March 7, 2017 / 39.95
Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, Dolly Wells, David Sibley.
Cinematography: Lol Crawley
Film Editor: Jonathan Alberts
Production Designer: Sarah Finlay
From the short story by David Constantine
Produced by Tristan Goligher
Written and Directed by Andrew Haigh
Most filmmakers must find a way to chop down 800-page novels and still retain some semblance of the original. Others have the opposite problem, fleshing a short story to fill a feature length movie. The classic example is Ernest Hemingway’s The Killers, which is less than three thousand words in length. The solution for its screenwriters was to play the events of the short story straight. That takes about twelve minutes to spool out, and then the writers continue by inventing an entire context of characters and events around the original situation.
45 Years is from David Constantine’s twelve-page short story, a delicate piece about the relationship of a married couple about to celebrate their 45th anniversary. We read the dialogues and the spare descriptions, and must detect the drama between the lines. In Andrew Haigh’s movie version, we closely observe the faces, reactions and vocal tones of the two leading characters. Most of the important scenes play out between them in quiet rooms. There are shopping trips and interactions with friends, and an added celebration scene to open up the intimate play of feelings. But Haigh has definitely retained the original’s tentative short story feel.
Great excitement isn’t part of the life of Kate and Geoff Mercer (Charlotte Rampling & Tom Courtenay), and everyone would agree that that’s a good thing. She’s a retired teacher and he a retired factory worker, and they live in a charming country cottage. He ruminates through his books — he was once an adventurous student and still talks a liberal streak, and he sounds cranky when criticizing their conservative friends. Geoff is beginning to dodder about a bit and doesn’t take particularly good care of his appearance. Kate is sharper, more inquisitive, and more appreciative of their peaceful home life. She finds Geoff endearing, even when he’s selfish and whiny. They’ve decided to rent a hall to celebrate their 45th anniversary, and Geoff is being something of a wet mop, making noises as if he doesn’t want to see their friends or isn’t going to have fun. Kate takes this in stride, as she knows him all too well, the dear.
All that changes with the arrival of a letter. Before Geoff met Kate in Italy so many years before, he had a German girlfriend. Katya was killed in an accident on a Swiss glacier, lost at the bottom of a deep crevasse. Geoff mumbles things about global warming being responsible for a thaw. The body can’t be recovered quite yet but it’s been spotted. Kate knows very soon that something is amiss. Geoff reacts a bit too much to the news, and even mumbles something about wanting to go to Switzerland. He avoids Kate’s concerned, non-aggressive questions. He’s shook up enough to smoke a forbidden cigarette. Over the next day before the anniversary dinner, Kate tries her best to deal with a growing emotional doubt caused by Geoff’s erratic behavior. She’d all but forgotten about this long-ago lover, and now Katya’s significance to Geoff is shaking her sense of security about her relationship. Kate has devoted her life to Geoff, all on the basis that he loves her and shares everything with her. Now all that is suddenly undermined.
We like Kate Mercer from the beginning. No relationship is perfect but she seems content with the good things she has — her relationship works not because everything is equal, but because she feels it is shared. Geoff is quietly petulant, and likes to be served, but that feels cozy because the assumption is that inside, his devotion is total. When that ‘bargain’ comes into question, Kate’s whole life is in jeopardy. In a standard melodrama with important events, complex relationships and conflicts, the subject matter of 45 Years might be a trivial matter. But real lives aren’t trivial, even when the conflict is over something as simple as who makes who wash the dishes. Is your mate honest with you?
Director Haigh has two sensational actors for his show, and of course the bulk of the praise for 45 Years goes to them. The great Tom Courtenay has a history of fine work, and even his lesser movies are highly watchable just for his presence. I’m fond of saying that his Russian revolutionary in Doctor Zhivago is so much more interesting than the title poet character, that I’d rather have seen a movie called “Comrade Strelnikov.” In Courtenay’s Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner he epitomized the kitchen sink protest prole, and in Billy Liar he personified the flip, hip swingin’ England comedy style soon appropriated by Richard Lester.
Charlotte Rampling had her own career of daring roles and succeeded by relying on her temperament, not her looks. Her cold deadeye stare could mean anything but most often indicated characters wholly self-contained, at odds with the world. That’s of course an overstatement, as Ms. Rampling portrayed a wide range of characters. This softer senior citizen Kate fully conveys the feelings of a happy woman who has spent her life giving to others — even the mail carrier was her student — and still feels like she has a lot to give in her retirement years. The house looks organized (plastic tubs!) and Kate seems to welcome each day.
It’s Kate’s film, really, and its real subject matter is Charlotte Rampling’s face. Geoff has granted himself the privilege of externalizing his various petty pouts and annoyances, while Kate tries to maintain more control over her reactions. Without a single exaggerated reaction, we learn to read every hurt and doubt that flows from this woman as if she were our own spouse observed over the dinette table. She’s saying a lot, but Geoff doesn’t see it. The (muted) fireworks begin when Kate begins to believe that her place in Geoff’s life isn’t what she thought it was.
45 Years has an ‘old folks make love’ scene done with uncommon dignity. They still enjoy dancing to their ’60s hit songs — or at least Geoff is working the feeling up to distract himself — but his behavior in bed mirrors the state of their relationship. It’s all about him, and when he’s disappointed he has no further thought of her. Kate has learned to feel comfortable with her husband’s behaviors… but with her growing doubt, the inequities of their marriage come out in greater relief. She begins her own investigation into Geoff’s past. As in Peeping Tom, an attic room is revealed as a repository of suppressed, hidden secrets.
Although the director takes great pains to keep the show still and low-key, Kate’s disquietude all but screams. Geoff’s guilty and insensitive reactions only serve to deepen her resentment. If she confronted Geoff with his marital crime directly, she might be even more disillusioned. Old guys get overly dramatic, after years of ignoring their own feelings. Geoff might well shoot back that he got sick of Kate through 45 years of hearing her snore at night. What will the sequel be – “Year 46: Six Feet Under”?
I would rather save most of the picture’s surprises — it’s the kind of micro-attentive show where the revelations are best discovered with the characters on screen. I can imagine that theater audiences reacted audibly with Kate in one scene in the attic. True to its short story source, 45 Years brings its drama to a close with the kind of detail that shows up in a James Joyce story, a gesture that changes the direction of a person’s universe. In that respect the show is more than satisfactory.
I do have a nagging complaint regarding the film’s story basis, the gimmick of the long-ago event in Switzerland. Other authors and filmmakers have exploited the notion of real-life incidents of mountaineering casualties fast-frozen in the ice, and not recovered for decades. It’s a ready-made situation for a deep-think story, romantic or cynical: the survivor lives on to old age, and then looks upon the recovered body of the loved one, who hasn’t aged a day and looks fresh as a daisy. Thus the cruelties of Love and Time are served up in a nutshell. In Five Days One Summer, the exact same event merely comments on the awkwardness of a couple’s May-December relationship. They are pretending to be married, as well. The A.E.W. Mason story The Crystal Trench, adapted by Sterling Silliphant for an Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV show, uses a deep- frozen Alpine lover for a wickedly cynical comment on a life ‘wasted’ in romantic reverie.
The ‘lover in deep freeze’ gimmick is very much a Time Travel idea: one person ages, the other doesn’t. The exact same ruminations have been derived from overt time travel stories, and stories suggested by the Einstein/Relativity equation that says that an astronaut traveling at the speed of light won’t age along with his lover back home. The noted Rod Serling- scripted Twilight Zone episode The Long Morrow mixes this notion with a cruel nod to O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, for extra irony.
One related Time-Love story is so beautifully realized, it transcends any notion of gimmickry. In Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, art-sensitive Ingrid Bergman is seeing her marriage crumble. Her emotional climax is a confrontation with an archeological find in Pompeii. The plaster casts of two lovers caught in the ancient eruption cross two millennia to tell Bergman that they were faithful unto death. It’s a curse from the past mocking her own failed marriage. It’s bizarre but not at all a gimmick, and it serves almost the same function as the ‘plot complication’ of an old lover coming back from an icy grave.
Finally, 45 Years also reminds of James Joyce’s “The Dead”, except that Joyce’s life-altering disillusion occurs practically on the last page. Instead of a husband moved to despair, a wife discovers unwelcome feelings of anger and resentment. We identify strongly with the Mercers’ situation, even if the story particulars feel too familiar.
The odd thing about 45 Years is that the business with a glacier in Switzerland is really incidental to the plot on hand. Any piece of evidence of an old love that causes Kate to doubt her relationship would have the same effect. The same thing would happen if Geoff began to talk too much about Katya. So why, in this resolutely realistic movie, even pull such a melodramatic device into service? It’s not accomplished storytelling for the short story or the movie. I found myself having to ignore the Switzerland business, to concentrate on Charlotte Rampling’s beautifully colored emotions.
The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of 45 Years is a picture perfect encoding of this modest, deeply felt drama. Its set in that lovely, overcast England where nobody seems to throw a shadow, at a time of year when jackets and sweaters are required outdoor wear. The images caress Charlotte Rampling’s face, making every wrinkle seem more beautiful. The only soundtrack music is provided by occasional golden oldies, that naturally have lyrics that mock Kate’s distress. She and Geoff dance to one, but they mostly stay in the background, except for one offender with lyrics too close to Kate’s secret resentment: “Young girl, get out of my mind…”
The disc is a full collaboration with the filmmaker, so the extras are a high-toned celebration of what everyone assumes is great work, if not a masterpiece. The articulate director shares time with his producer, stars and several artisans on a commentary and a long-form docu, while the author of the original short story weighs in on the adaptation and finds it to his liking. The most persuasive witnesses are the actors Rampling and Courtenay. They have seen so much blah source material in their combined careers, that when they praise this we take notice. Essayist Ella Taylor recounts director Haigh’s previous gay-themed movies and marvels at the subtleties in Rampling’s performance.
Criterion’s cover art uses an image not in the movie (I don’t think). It only makes the story contrivance at the center of this excellent drama seem more false.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Supplements: Audio commentary featuring Haigh and producer Tristan Goligher; documentary featuring interviews with Haigh, Goligher, actors Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, editor Jonathan Alberts, and director of photography Lol Crawley; New interview with David Constantine, author of the short story on which the film is based; Trailer; insert essay by critic Ella Taylor
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 5, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson