As divorce rates rise in most of the industrialized world, being with the same partner for 45 years these days calls for a major celebration (perhaps a medal would be more in order), which is exactly what Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) decide to do in the British film “45 Years.”
The brief, concise opening shots show Kate returning from one of numerous errands in preparation for the anniversary party, and a conversation with a postman who, a former pupil of hers, reveals to the audience that she had been a much-liked school teacher in the local Norfolk community.
Charlotte Rampling was up for an Oscar for this role and it’s easy to see why. She brings a masterful combination of the anger, honesty and self-deception that assails a woman who, after 45 years of being with her husband Geoff, discovers that he still holds a place in his heart for a woman who had died five decades ago.
When a letter arrives to inform Geoff that the body of ex-girlfriend Katya has been discovered preserved in a glacier in the Swiss mountains, where she had fallen into a crevice during a climb together, Kate doesn’t rant or rave. She wants to appear nonchalant — after all, the tragedy happened before she and Geoff had met. But as Geoff’s behavior changes and she suspects he never stopped loving Katya, it gnaws on her conscience — and with the 45th anniversary celebrations scheduled just days away, the timing couldn’t be worse.
“This is an exercise in observing a relationship,” says director Andrew Haigh in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “I read the short story (by David Constantine) and was fascinated by the man-woman dynamic in the context of a long and successful marriage.”
Haigh, who is openly gay, caused a stir among Japan’s LGBT community when his previous film “Weekend” was shown at the Tokyo International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival in 2012. Whether his film offers a different perspective on heterosexual relationships, however, is something he takes a moment to ponder over.
“I think that the gay man tends to have a better perspective on relationships in general, and also on women,” he says. “Gays and women have both been outsiders in a male-dominated society, and this has produced a lot of opportunities for gays to think about relationships, observe people in conventional marriages and so on. They’re much more attuned to the whole relationship thing, and more likely to think about other people in their many different situations.”
Heterosexual men, he continues, are often in “positions where they can take the relationship for granted.” Something, he says that conventional marriages may perpetuate.
Geoff does indeed appear to take Kate for granted. After he learns the news about his former lover, he holes himself up in the attic to look through old photographs as Kate drives into town to organize their upcoming party. When she comes home, he invents a story about fixing a leaky faucet. Kate tries to talk about the preparations in a casual, off-hand way (clearly she does not want to pressure her husband), but Geoff remains preoccupied and prefers to dip into a volume by Soren Kierkegaard, something he used to read in his youth.
Almost imperceptibly, the couple begins to drift apart — Geoff seems to yearn for the impossible that would transport him back to 1962 when he and Katya took that fatal trip, while Kate patiently tries to pull him back and keep him in the present. Not surprisingly, their conversations become strained, but Kate is willing to listen as Geoff waxes nostalgic about his former relationship.
“We registered as man and wife,” he tells her, seemingly oblivious to the damage his words are doing to his wife of 45 years. “Back then, we couldn’t stay in a hotel without being married, so we lied.”
“In a way, Geoff is typical of the aging British male,” says Haigh. “After retirement, they tend to be the weaker partner in the marriage, and they often say things without thinking. At that stage of their lives, and after being freed from societal expectations, men tend to be beaten down by age and circumstances while the women try to fight it out.”
Yet Haigh stresses that Geoff is not intentionally trying to be mean to Kate or belittle her: “He’s simply being honest and trying to tell the truth about an incident from the past.”
“I feel great sympathy for Geoff,” Haigh adds. “You know, it’s interesting — in the U.K., many people of both genders tended to sympathize more with Geoff and they couldn’t understand the fuss Kate was making. It could be that for Geoff, the rediscovery of Katya is a chance for him to get excited about something again, and it really is as innocent as that.”
Maybe so, but it still reveals itself onscreen as a lot to ask of Kate.
“I can’t imagine any actor other than Charlotte Rampling taking on this role,” Haigh says. “I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She occupies every frame as if she completely lives in that moment. Watching her, you sense Kate’s intense loneliness, and how, in the end, we’re always alone, even in relationships. Or, perhaps, because of relationships.”