You don’t need a cacophony of piping noises or lucid, long passages to showcase the emotional maelstrom and the pain of nostalgia felt by a character on-screen. You just need great performers, who could convey the character’s moods in a non-dramatic way. Andrew Haigh’s restrained relationship drama “45 Years” (2015) is blessed by such performers – Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. Haigh’s feature film debut “Weekend” (2011) showcased the early stages of a gay relationship between two young men, but with “45 Years”, Haigh has chosen completely opposite story line involving older straight couple, who were about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. The film terrifically depicts how cyclical waves of past griefs and memories could gradually erode the decades of bond between loving couples.
Relationship dramas rarely travel away from Rom-com genre to present us a genuine, perceptive and unfulfilled side of relationships or marriages. While “45 Years” not only stumbles onto the bitter side of a marriage, but also withholds a complicated situation at its center, which profoundly talks about our notion of memories. Adapted from David Constantin’s short story (“In Another Country”), the film opens on a cozy, countryside atmosphere. Former factory manager Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) and his wife Kate Mercer (Rampling), a retired school teacher live in relative affluence, although the childless couple spend their time thinking about smaller choices in life. The one immediate thing they had to decide about is what to serve or what song to play for the upcoming 45th wedding anniversary party. Geoff seems like a putterer, while Kate seems clear-eyed. Their initial conversations and unspoken gazes perfectly show us the habits of an archetypal, old & wealthy married couple, who seem to acknowledge each others' flaws and continue to live in contentment.
These initial frames might make us think that this is an average domestic drama. But it’s not. An ‘elephant’ has already entered into the cozy rooms of this couple’s house. That ‘elephant in the room’ arrives in the form of a letter. In that letter, written in German, it is stated that the corpse of Katya had been found preserved in ice. Katya was Geoff’s sweetheart, 50 years before, and she disappeared into a fissure in the ice, while they both were on a hiking trip in the Alps. Katya was in Geoff’s life before he met up with Kate. So, it seems there’s not much to threaten an old marriage bond, although Geoff becomes so quiet and rattled from the moment he reads the letter. He later conveys that he was listed as the next of kin for Katya, an information Kate says that Geoff had never shared with her. Gradually, the old couple tries to evoke their own freezed memories about the relationship. A simple song, pressed flowers on a notebook and old photos link up and ask big doubts about their marriage. There’s not a single major dramatic incident in the plot’s course, but with each disentangled, profound truth, the film becomes immensely intriguing.
Director/writer Andrew Haigh subtly establishes the couple’s quiet, peaceful life and then elegantly pushes a ‘ghost’ into the plot that keeps on expose their vulnerabilities and doubts. There’s a recurrent reference to photographs, which sort of becomes a stand-in word for old memories. Photos do freeze our past, confined to a place, whose context might get slippery over time. Old photos or newly remembered memories can hit us with a wave of nostalgia, from which we could extraction a satisfaction that we have led a good life. But, what if those things solely indicate the missed opportunities or doubt over the choices we made in life. Then the old memories & photographs could become a ‘ghost’. In “45 Years”, the specter named ‘Katya’ (whom we don’t even see clearly in the photos) casts a suspicion that is so intricately calibrated. Retrospective jealousy is something we rarely in movie characters, which is carefully etched with the character of Kate.
The emotional fall down is sequential and yet looks natural. Initially, Kate says “I can hardly be cross with something that happened before we existed, can I?" Then while taking to her friend Lena on how there’s slight changes in Geoff’s behavior, she utters “he gets over-passionate about things”. She’s trying to reason out or understand her life partner. And, finally when the secret comes to light, she chillingly says “It’s like she’s [Katya] been standing in the corner of the room all this time, behind by back; it’s tainted everything”. Director Haigh cleverly uses visual motifs like closing doors or attics to demonstrate how the emotional troubles keeps on getting heightened. Perhaps Katya being encased in an ice (and the information that she is perfectly preserved) becomes an obvious symbol of the couples’ impending sense of misery. Most importantly, neither Geoff nor Kate is shown as unsympathetic or acidic. It is absolutely evident that they love each other, which isn’t makes their disquiet more distressing. There are also no unnecessary subplots to make things contrived.
As a writer, Haigh puts forward some beautiful dialogues (like the scene where Lena says on why Kate and Geoff need the anniversary party), but he as a director isn’t intent on capturing the dialogue deliveries; he rather concentrates on the reactions of characters to the words spoken. In one occasion, we see Geoff lucidly remembering on what would have happened, if Katya had survived and they had made a trip to Italy. Haigh’s shot in that scene focuses on Kate’s reaction and as words keeps on pouring at the end little emotional ripples on her face. And may be the understated emotional reactions exhibited by Courtenay and Rampling are what gives me a thoroughly engrossing experience. Even the smallest of gestures from the veteran actors expresses battle of emotions.
“45 Years” has one of the phenomenal endings in the recent cinematic history (it also made me remember the impactful ending of Christian Petzold “Phoenix”). It is an assemblage of finest piece of acting and directing. The whole film seems to have build up to that moment, where we see the disquieting closeup shot of Kate’s face. A little slip in the filming of the final, anniversary sequences could have robbed the cliff-hanger sort of culmination. There’s a touching speech by Geoff and a beautiful song, where the lyrics seems to sum-up the couple’s life along with the present uncertainties. Slowly, despite the loud claps, the camera settles on Rampling’s face. Will there be another wedding anniversary celebration? Can they get past the feeling that made them question their whole relationship? We can make up our own theories. But, the uncertainty that lies in the final shot conveys a lot about the realities of relationship and on life too.
At 95 minutes, Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” brazenly and vividly focuses on the confounding aspects of a good relationship. The lack of high tragedies and presence of in-articulated, deep emotions may not interest many, but I feel that this is a ‘grade A’ cinema.