“What will happen on Sunday? ” will be the question haunting viewers of the incredible film “45 Years”. Highly structured more like a play than a film, this masterpiece begins with another question: “What is that clicking noise so rhythmic and long-ago-familiar that begins the film?” Question after question will keep any lover of the slow, Indie Film ruminating for years. I will see this film again. And I can’t wait to discuss it with friends both married and never married and oft married.
The structure is patterned chronologically from Monday to Saturday. Saturday is the anniversary party celebrating 45 years of the union of Kate ( Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer ( Tom Courtenay ).
The setting is the English countryside with its muddy lanes, farmlands, and villages. Their life is routine with Kate’s dog walks in the morning, her anorak deposited on the hall tree, followed by her kitchen-faucet water drinks, and the mail delivery. Geoff we learn has had a heart by-pass that delayed their 40th anniversary celebration. He is trying to quit smoking and is a tad grouchy, heedless even, resigned to his aging body. They listen to Mozart and read Kierkegaard. One would guess volume two “The Aesthetic Validity Of A Marriage”, where love is represented by striving. ( I read this during a protracted divorce.) Conjugal love K ( Kierkegaard, not Kate) tells us is “faithful, constant, humble, patient, long-suffering, indulgent, sincere, contented, vigilant, willing and joyful…the individual fights within himself: fights out love from within himself.”
Kate is more romantic, but dutiful. She plans the venue, the flowers, the guest lists, the menu. She decides on no bourgeois “top table”. She wishes they had more photographs. Rampling is marvelous as the former teacher, who surrounds their lives with books and music, and is brought down by a letter that reveals her husband has not been completely forthcoming in their marriage. He has not disclosed that his former girlfriend, whose name also begins with a “K” (Katya) was his fiancée and pregnant when she fell into a crevasse in the Swiss Alps.
Only now, fifty years later, has her body been recovered completely preserved. Geoff wants to see her body, and Kate is jealous and hurt. He visits a travel agent without telling her, has sleepless nights, and hunts in his attic memorabilia for Katya’s picture. Kate endures his admonition: “Don’t be cross, Kate.”
Why hasn’t he revealed more, Kate asks herself. She snoops, finds letters and perfumed correspondence, which alarmingly is a familiar scent in their household. The initial clicking noise at the film’s black-screened start is revealed, as is Geoff’s secret. Why does their decision to not have children take on a more unfaithful glaze ?
Rampling’s face is a minefield of emotion. Her legs still astound, but her facial control is any actress’s dream. ( Charlotte Rampling and Alicia Vikander can share an Oscar.) She deals with what she sees as betrayal. Kate tries to empathize. Both she and her husband were suffering before they met at the exact time. “I lost my mother that same year.” She tries to down play the Katya relationship: “Seems like you were merely chasing a girl who wanted to be chased. ” The wind picks up and we think of ” something wicked this way comes.” There is a storm on the horizon.
Geoff tries to address her jealousy and hurt. ” I suppose a cuddle is out of the question?” ” It’s just a fucking picture. It doesn’t mean anything.” Lyrics of “Hey, girl, get out of my mind” are abruptly turned off. He hates Kate’s theoretical questions. “Would you have…?” He doesn’t wish to share this history with her. It is his alone.
Kierkegaard makes the general observation that there are two great classes of men. “Those who predominately live in hope, and those who predominating live in recollection. Both have a wrong relation to time. The healthly individual lives at once both in hope and in recollection, and only thereby does his life acquire true and substantial continuity.” In the film, Kate does not purchase a watch for Geoff, though she thinks of getting one engraved. Geoff tells her later when she apologizes for not having a token present for him that he “likes not knowing the time.” This may be an innocent disclaimer of retirement, but it furthers Kate’s feeling that Geoff wishes to go back in time to his first love, Katya.
On Friday, Kate selects “Happy Together” by the Turtles. “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by The Platters for two of the songs to be played at Saturday’s party. The cinematography takes us in and out of window views. The camera pans over the detritus of their cluttered lives. Every surface holds a memory. Kate says ” It has been an odd day.” Geoff answers with, “Bit of a shock is all.” The lighting is picture perfect as they dine over a fruit bowl housing apple and banana. This may be symbolic of the male/female psyches. Geoff explains why he was notified as next of kin. Their pillow talk later is more darkly framed and ends with Geoff’s , “I’m tired.”
One of the climactic scenes features Kate’s face and Katya’s as the clicking and whirl of the slide projector shows both women in the same film frame. Rampling’s breathing is emotional and imbalanced. She is magnificent. She takes pills and stares at her reflection ; probably Xanax is needed to get through Saturday’s fete.
Kate tries again to open communication: “I’d like to be able to tell you everything I’ve been thinking. I do understand. I don’t think I was enough for you.” The next day, Geoff brings her tea in bed, fixes her breakfast and walks the dog with her. He is trying. Yet, his ” Funny how you forget the things in life which make you happy.” does not bring any succor. Bird watching and piano playing seem beyond the real point. As Geoff displays that “what are we going to do” look, Kate says, ” We are going to get up and we are going to do this again.”
On Saturday, Kate enters the party with a triumphant smile. She can play the part. Geoffrey’s speech to their friends and well wishers seems not to be what Kate wanted. “So Happy Together” plays ironically in the background. Geoff intones with ” As we get older, we seem to stop making choices. The choices we make when we are young are bloody important. I need to say that persuading you to marry me was the best thing I have ever done. I love you. ” Now, what will Sunday bring ?
The theologian Harvey Cox once wrote ” that if love and trust and intimacy are important in a marriage, we need a real self with continuity and the capacity for trust.” Can Geoff win Kate’s trust back ? Will Geoff be able to show that his love history need not be creepy ? Were his library books on glacial melt better than books checked out on cryogenics ? Is withholding always a betrayal ? Is self-disclosure always a measure of the depth of a relationship ?
Director Andrew Haigh’s script was adapted from David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country”. I will be reading Constantine and re-reading sections from two favorite books on love relationships: Dr. William Kilpatrick’s “Identity And Intimacy” ( 1975) and Rollo May’s “Love and Will”. “45 Years” is a visual treatise on marriage that everyone should see.