Movie review: 45 Years
Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay play a married couple who uncover a long-buried secret that changes everything they think about their marriage in this devastating British drama
Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay
Directed by: Andrew Haigh
Running time: 95 minutes
By Jay Stone
Can a marriage come unraveled after many decades merely by pulling on a single thread? And if it can, what was there in the first place? How delicate is a love that has settled into quiet companionship?
“When a lovely flame dies / smoke gets in your eyes,” the Platters sing at the devastating end of the drama 45 Years, a line that doesn’t answer the questions but sums up the sting of the disappointment. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes is what we hear at the beginning of the film as well: Kate (Charlotte Rampling) is humming it to herself as she walks her eager dog through the flat landscape of Norfolk in rural England.
The song is on her mind because she and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are about to celebrate their 45th anniversary and the tune will be played, just as it was at their wedding. Like the movie itself, the song is not about love as much as it is about the end of love. It probably wasn’t the best choice for a wedding song, although it’s good to dance to.
Kate returns from her walk to find a letter has been delivered that will change her life. A body has been found frozen in an Alpine mountain: Katya (a more exotic reading of Kate, if you have a mind for that kind of analysis) was an old girlfriend of Geoff’s who died in a climbing accident 50 years before. They were very close. They even pretended to be married — she would wear a wooden ring from a curtain rod to fool innkeepers.
It all happened years before Geoff met Kate, but suddenly everything that happened since has been thrown into a shadow — “infected,” in her words — by this new knowledge. Kate and Geoff have had a long and seemingly comfortable life together (a life with no children but with several dogs) but now there appears to have been a spike of youthful passion that she never knew about. Has he become a stranger?
It’s difficult to know for sure. Writer-director Andrew Haigh, adapting a short story by David Constantine, keeps to the even surfaces of life on the Norfolk flats. Geoff is particularly vague, a solitary and cranky man whose unremarkability — his idea of seduction is to ask, “I suppose a cuddle is out of the question” — now seems like another kind of betrayal as well. After all, he once climbed mountains.
There’s a distant, almost second-hand feel to 45 Years, as if all the action has taken place elsewhere, or at a different time, and we’re there to see the ashes of it. Even the soundtrack, of old 1960s hits, is distant, and it’s hard to believe that in this intimate relationship, Geoff would never have mentioned his earlier love. But the story is brought into relief by Rampling, whose Oscar-nominated performance is at the heart of the movie. Understated and devastating, the actress conveys with a downturned mouth or a hesitant turn of her head the pain of her recalculation. There are secrets in the couple’s attic that haunt the film like thought balloons, floating just overhead and providing answers that it may be dangerous to know.
At one stage, Geoff asks Kate if she really thinks she was not enough for him, and she replies that she knows she was, but she isn’t sure if he knows it. It’s a finely calibrated point, just the kind of thing that can taint what has gone before, or answer a question that no one even thought to ask for the better part of five decades. It’s too late for Kate and Geoff to do anything but be at peace with one another, and therefore it’s also too late for that peace to be disturbed.
“Some day you will find all who love are blind,” sing the Platters. Maybe it’s best that way.
THE EX-PRESS, January 31, 2016
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