Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as a long married couple whose relationship is disturbed by a letter relating to his first girlfriend, a German who died in the Swiss alps 50 years earlier. Aside from that, not much happens. A shopping trip to Norwich is about as exciting as it gets, on the action front. But this is one of those ‘inaction films’, as I call them, in which nothing happens, but everything happens; it is simple yet absorbingly profound. And it will resonate. It will resonate afterwards and it will resonate the next day and it will resonate the day after that. In fact I am still resonating, and rather wish I wasn’t, so I could move on with my own life. It’s rare for a film to affect me in this way. Gemma Bovery didn’t, for example. Nor Avengers.
This is Haigh’s second film as writer and director after Weekend — about a gay relationship; highly recommended — and is based on the short story, ‘In Another Country’, by David Constantine. It opens with Kate (Rampling) walking the dog near the couple’s home, a cottage in Norfolk. The dog is a German shepherd, which already resonates, as why not a Labrador or spaniel, as you’d expect, for a woman of her age and class? Nothing is answered — why not a golden retriever? — but everything sets you thinking, as well as very slightly on edge. She returns home to discover that Geoff (Courtenay), her husband, has received a letter from the Swiss authorities about Katya, who plunged to her death in the mountains in 1962, and has been discovered in a snow melt, perfectly preserved. She has, quite literally, frozen in time. You’d think this was a film about Geoff, about how this shakes him up, but it’s more about Kate, and how it shakes her up. Even when the two of them are in conversation together, the camera is always on her face, and what a face. There is something about Rampling: I could look at her forever. Nothing seems to happen on that face, but at the same time everything happens on that face; every nuance, every hurt, every calibration of feeling. Quite, quite magical, and wholly transfixing.
The plot, such as it is, is driven by the preparations for their 45th wedding anniversary party, to be held in a few days’ time, and which they plough on with, albeit somewhat joylessly, now Katya has come to occupy the space between them. Kate wakes in the night to find Geoff’s side of the bed empty; he’s up in the loft where he’s rediscovered old photographs of him and Katya together. (He was with her when she fell.) Is he trying to get back to a time before, a time before Kate? Is it a yearning for what might have been? If relationships are what define us, where does this leave Kate now? No answers, but to complicate matters further you sense theirs has not been an unhappy marriage. There is love, and they’ve rubbed along well enough, even though they never had children, which seems to be the cause of some pain. Perhaps they are both grieving for the lives they did not live, and perhaps, excessively nostalgically in Geoff’s case. From the snippets we are awarded, Katya does sound quite the flirt.
This always feels real, as well as truthful. Geoff and Kate both feel like actual people, rather than those caricatures of older people so often found in films; the ones who have worked all their stuff out whereas we all probably go on working stuff out until our dying day, and are as likely to have an existential crisis at 77 as we are at… 27. All certainties are fragile, the film sometimes seemed to be saying, but quietly, as this is a quiet film, without even a score. (Thank God, as I’ve heard enough background violins and pianos and cellos to last the life I have lived plus all those I haven’t.) Instead, what music there is comes from what the characters are listening to, or what they might be humming. Kate sometimes hums ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’, which accompanied their first dance at their wedding. (‘They asked me how I knew, my true love was true…’.)
Courtenay, I should add, also offers a fine and subtle performance, saving Geoff from being the insensitive oaf he might otherwise have been, but this is Rampling’s film, and you won’t be able to get it out of your head. Might Katya have been pregnant? Is the dog a child substitute? Is its German heritage significant? What are we to make of the contrast between the Alps and flatness of Norfolk? Still resonating…