Blog Directory CineVerse: March 2023

Kong still strong after 90 years

Thursday, March 30, 2023

While the visual effects can seem somewhat antiquated today, King Kong serves as a constant reminder to filmmakers and viewers alike that imagination, creativity, ingenuity, talent, cinematic audacity, and spectacle can create a lasting work of pop art that deserves to be continually appreciated by new generations. Nothing like Kong existed before it, but the countless copycats, homages, remakes, reboots, and derivative works in its wake speak volumes about the pervasive reach and impact of this 1933 classic.

Click here to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film

Why Kong remains worthy of kudos

A case be made that King Kong is quite possibly the most influential film ever made. This work essentially created two subgenres: the giant monster movie, and the fantasy/horror epic. It also debuted a transcendent horror and fantasy character that continues to be reinvented by filmmakers and reintroduced to new audiences. Only Godzilla is as ubiquitous a mammoth monster in pop culture, which helps explain the recurrent fascination with pitting these two giant creatures against each other in a handful of films.

In the words of DVD Savant critic Glenn Erickson: “King Kong is a good, old-fashioned American creation. He emerged from the gloomy bottom of the Great Depression to reinvent film Horror as a modern item unrelated to ancient superstitions or primitive folklore… Skull Island is a truly magical land lost in time, a place synonymous with the dream of adventure…There's no substitute for an original work of popular art. The '33 Kong is the one that activates the subconscious, stirs one's imagination, and remains a masterpiece of spectacle, horror, and adventure.”

“By taking their audience to the brink of the unknown, the filmmakers invented the modern concept of the showman’s spectacle, which has inspired countless directors from Jackson to Steven Spielberg,” posited Deep Focus Review’s Brian Eggert. “Within its splendid sense of awe and its ability to involve the viewer emotionally through its technical innovations, King Kong provides the underlying ambition of Hollywood cinema. The film brings the movies to a colossal and iconographic highpoint of entertainment, acknowledging within the narrative and its symbols how eagerly audiences seek out diversion, and how amusement, if visionary talent assembles the production, can have greater significance than mere escapism.”

Filmmaker Peter Jackson credits Kong with being the first time visual effects would drive the story in a feature film. Ponder how Kong elevated the stature, importance, and recognition of special-effects artists, including stop-motion animators. Willis O’Brien wasn’t exactly a household name after Kong was released, but history has shone a stronger light on his name and talents in the years and decades following 1933 (let’s also not overlook the ingenuity of artist Marcel Delgado, who is credited with designing the Kong miniature). O’Brien inspired Ray Harryhausen, who achieved even greater fame and attention, and these two influenced a whole new generation of effects wizards, including Phil Tippett, Stan Winston, Douglas Trumbull, John Dykstra, Dennis Muren, and Kenneth Ralston.

Furthermore, King Kong brings needed cachet and kudos to the horror and fantasy genres, many films of which are often devalued by critics and scholars as lesser entertainment. Kong has been ranked as the greatest horror movie of them all by Rotten Tomatoes, it places #41 in the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 greatest American films of all time, and it is widely considered the finest monster movie and giant creature film ever made.

Ruminate, too, on how King Kong contemporized horror by placing the setting in a modern thriving metropolis with skyscrapers, not in a gothic European landscape where old-school monsters tend to dwell.

Additionally, it’s no small point that Kong’s story was an original and fresh horror narrative not sourced from popular genre books like Frankenstein and Dracula or works by Poe and H.G. Wells.

Kong also expanded and popularized the “lost world” and jungle adventure fare explored in previous pictures like The Lost World (1925), Cooper and Schoedsack’s Chang (1927), Ingagi (1931), Trader Horn (1931), Tarzan the Ape Man (1932), and The Most Dangerous Game (1932) – many of the stories of which originated from esteemed authors like Jules Vern, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

This certainly would have been a graphically violent, sexually suggestive, and disturbing movie for early 1930s audiences. Let’s not forget: King Kong is a horror movie; there’s a monster; its body count is high, especially victims trampled on, bitten, dropped from tall heights, and slaughtered by giant creatures; dinosaurs shed blood and Kong cracks open the jaw of one of his vanquished foes; Fay Wray’s feminine form peeks through her garments, she’s partially nude in the swimming escape scene, and there’s the scene where Kong peels off some of Ann’s clothing and smells his fingers afterward. Many of these scenes were truncated or excised from later prints by censors. Also, this picture contains some of the most memorable screams in horror film history. Fay Wray’s piercing shrieks and convincing howls for help continue to unnerve modern viewers.

The movie avoids taking shortcuts to get to the crowd-pleasing elements. Kong doesn’t even appear until the 47-minute mark, nearly halfway through the film. That means audiences are given a solid setup and decent character development before the titular character emerges.

Kong also deserves to be celebrated as a meta-film, meaning a movie about the making of a movie and also about its makers. Carl Denham is attempting to film an exotic adventure film starring Ann Darrow, and King Kong also reflects the adventurous backstory and sensibilities of its co-director/co-producer Merian C. Cooper. Cooper was famous for being one of the first bomber pilots in World War I, exploring exotic locations, and filming documentaries and fictional movies in faraway lands like Africa, Iran, and Thailand that often featured dangerous wild animals, ferocious warriors, nomadic tribes, and indigenous people.

Tracing Kong’s path of innovation

Give pause to the influence Kong has had on cinema. By improving and inventively combining different special effects and techniques in one film – including stop-motion animation, miniatures, rear projection, optical printing, models, and matte paintings – it revolutionized the field and raised the bar for visual and audio effects. Murray Spivack, responsible for the sound effects, combined different animal noises, slowly played backward, to create Kong’s distinctive roar, and employed an air compressor and his own vocals to produce many of the dinosaur sounds.

It was the first feature-length Hollywood talkie to be graced with a musical score written specifically for it; Max Steiner’s score for Kong inspired many subsequent filmmakers and composers.

Kong has debatably remained the most famous and instantly recognizable movie monster in history. The popularity of video games like Donkey Kong and Rampage speaks to the enduring influence of a giant ape as a crowd-pleasing character.

Additionally, Kong stands as the first animated leading character to be a hit for a Hollywood studio. The colossal ape is infused with personality and remains sympathetic and entrancing as a larger-than-life character.

“No other monster movie has succeeded in depicting the relationship between the ferocious yet strangely sympathetic monster and the innocent heroine as King Kong does,” wrote reviewer Richard Scheib. “In fact, few other monster movies succeed in investing the beast with any character, in doing anything other than simply regarding it as a marauding monster.”

Kong’s success and 1952 reissue catalyzed the giant monster movie craze of the 1950s, including the debut of Godzilla and the Japanese Kaiju pictures. Among the imitators and coattail riders in the years after Kong’s 1933 debut are Cooper and Schoedsack’s Dr. Cyclops (1940), White Pongo (1945), Mighty Joe Young (1949), Konga (1961), and Kong Island (1968).

The movie’s lineage and Kong’s longevity as a cultural icon are impressive. Its sequel, Son of Kong, was released the same year in 1933; in the 1960s we got King Kong Vs. Godzilla and King Kong Escapes; a first direct remake came in 1976; Peter Jackson’s acclaimed 2005 remake proved popular; and Kong: Skull Island, from 2017, rebooted the character, followed by its sequel Godzilla vs. Kong.

Although King Kong wasn’t the first live-action Hollywood film to use animated dinosaur characters, it can likely be credited with motivating future filmmakers to make fantastical features showcasing dinosaurs. King Kong boasts several memorable dinosaur battles. In Kong’s wake came memorable prehistoric creatures in Fantasia, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, One Million Years BC, The Valley of Gwangi, When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth, The Land Time Forgot, and of course the Jurassic Park films.

Aspects that have aged well and not so well

Some of King Kong’s thematic underpinnings, like the negative consequences of man’s exploitation of the natural world and our fascination with the exotic and undiscovered, continue to resonate in the 21st century.

The look and nature of Kong as a gigantic beast with intelligent qualities remain distinctive and captivating, even if some of his visual idiosyncrasies were unplanned. His fur seems to “crawl,” for instance, he likes to toy with his conquests (recall how he removes Ann’s clothes and tickles her, and the way he plays with the dinosaur’s broken jaw), he rubs his eyes and shakes his head, and he’s capable of feeling and expressing different emotions – including affection, anger, curiosity, and pride – and his size changes throughout the story (because differently sized models and miniatures were used).

In his Great Movie critique, Roger Ebert wrote: “In modern times the movie has aged…but in the very artificiality of some of the special effects, there is a creepiness that isn’t there in today’s slick, flawless, computer-aided images. In “Jurassic Park” you are looking, more or less, at a real dinosaur. In “King Kong,” you are looking at an idea of a dinosaur, created by hand by technicians who are working with their imaginations. When Kong battles the large flesh-eating dinosaur in his first big battle scene, there is a moment when he forces its jaws apart, and the bones crack, and blood drips from the gaping throat, and something immediate happens that is hard to duplicate on any computer.”

However, the subtext of female and racial inferiority, imperialism, Manifest Destiny, and the subjugation of animals, ethnic minorities, and defenseless, wild, and untamed territories is all the more evident in 2023. In addition, the black natives on Skull Island are depicted as ignorant, primitive heathens, and there’s an unfortunately stereotypical representation of a Chinese cook among the crew of the tramp steamer.

While the filmmakers may not have intended it, there is an uncomfortable thematic element that seems to disparage black power and interracial relationships, with Kong, in this interpretation, representing black “otherness.” Once Kong falls from the skyscraper and dies, white dominance and racial order are re-established. Brian Eggert described this black otherness as “preying on white women that was rampant in the early decades of cinema, codified by D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915)…Among the advertising campaigns used to promote King Kong, many of them focused on the idea of a ‘black monster’ and a ‘white captive,’ juxtaposing the formidable gorilla as he holds the innocent ‘girl’ in his oversized hand.”

Lastly, the acting is sometimes ham-tastic and the dialogue is often trite and groan-worthy, such as Driscoll suddenly telling Ann with the most unenthusiastic delivery imaginable: “Hey... I guess I love you."

Giant monster, giant messages

This is certainly a man versus nature story that explores, even if inadvertently, our attempt to take advantage of and profit from the natural world and vulnerable populations. It’s doubtful that the filmmakers intended this subtext, but King Kong works today as a scathing critique of the so-called-civilized white man’s hubris in attempting to conquer the unconquered, plunder the planet’s natural resources, and capitalize on our instinctive enthrallment with never-before-seen, wild, untamed, and captured creatures. In this story, nature gets its revenge for a while by wreaking havoc upon civilization, but the dominant species – Homo sapiens – ultimately prevails. As phrased by critic Richard Scheib, “Civilization corrupts the greatness of the jungle beast.” Kong was a proud and mighty king in his native land, but man remains monarch of the developed world.

Beauty killed the beast is further subtext fodder. Kong succumbs to his attackers because he tries to protect Ann from getting hurt by the planes and is distracted by this goal while atop the Empire State Building. Ultimately, the animal’s humanlike emotional attachment to Ann proves his undoing. But this theme also can be construed as sexist and misogynistic if you conclude that Ann’s feminine allure had the power to inadvertently slay a creature imbued with hyper-masculine and patriarchal qualities.

King Kong is also a loose reflection of the beauty and the beast myth, but this reading only serves as a superficial one, as this is not a retelling of the French fairytale published in 1740; instead, the film clearly juxtaposes an attractive but helpless female with a gargantuan monstrosity whose affection for and devotion to her is unrequited.

King Kong’s greatest gift to viewers

The 1933 iteration of King Kong, despite its flaws—including special effects many would find quaint today, bouts of mediocre acting, and occasionally campy dialogue—remains quite possibly the most seminal and momentous cinematic text of the 20th century. Why? Because, like the massive gate on Skull Island that Kong bursts through it opened up a doorway to a whole new stratum of larger-than-life entertainment that each subsequent generation since has increasingly demanded: the fantasy/horror/adventure epic, a subset of which is the giant monster movie. Consider the extent to which such genre fare rules the box office today. King Kong proved that extraordinary visions of imaginative fancy could be effectively conjured, that mythical and historical beasts alike could come alive and intermingle with live-action human beings within a narrative wonderfully punctuated by riveting action sequences.

Kong’s mammoth movie footprints were felt everywhere in the years that followed—from the exotic adventures of The Thief of Baghdad in 1940 to the great run of Ray Harryhausen movies that began a few years later and the Toho cycle of Godzilla and Kaiju films launched in the mid-1950s to the Star Wars franchise to the Jurassic Park films and full circle back to new big screen Kong creations made over the last 18 years. Any contemporary film with dinosaurs, supersized animals, colossal creatures, horrific antagonists that wreak mass destruction upon a teeming metropolis, or voyages to mysterious realms where fantastic forces and astounding organisms dwell owes a debt to the original King Kong. And that’s a gargantuan gift.


Add Harry to the endangered species list

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Long before he helmed the first Rocky film, John G. Avildsen commanded attention for Save the Tiger, released in 1973 and starring Jack Lemmon as Harry Stoner, a businessman who is struggling to save his failing clothing company in Los Angeles. Stoner is faced with a variety of challenges, including the declining quality of his products, his mounting debt, and the increasing competition from foreign companies. As the pressure mounts, Stoner becomes increasingly desperate and turns to illegal and unethical means to save his business. Along the way, he is forced to confront his values and the toll that his actions are taking on himself and those around him.

The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Jack Lemmon, who claimed the statuette for this role (to listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of this film conducted last week, click here).

What makes Save the Tiger stand out? It depicts merely a day and a half in the life of its main character, representing a relatively small sample size but a consequential short-term period that underscores Harry's midlife crisis and existential angst. Additionally, the performances by Lemmon and Jack Greene elevate this picture to a higher plateau and prevent Save the Tiger from being a dated character study.

The narrative has an episodic nature that strings together several vignettes and key scenes involving conversations between Harry and a single character. It’s the interplay between Harry and each of these other figures that sheds light on his personality and Harry’s dilemmas.

This movie would have spoken more strongly to contemporary audiences in 1973, many of whom would have been fatigued by Watergate, the Vietnam War, sociocultural conflicts between the Establishment and the counterculture, and high inflation.

Unfortunately, Save the Tiger is sometimes a bit too on the nose and its exploration of moral quandaries and thematic quandaries, including the implication that the real tiger that needs saving is Harry and the visually symbolic scene where Harry is suffering a war flashback.

Indeed, it’s hard to miss the movie’s sledgehammered central theme: feeling irrelevant and displaced in a quickly changing world. Harry yearns for the simpler times of his youth, an era, for example, when sports, movies, business, and America overall were better and he had a stronger romantic relationship with his wife. Like the tiger he is asked to sign a petition to save, Harry represents a near-extinct breed of men who made sacrifices for their country in World War II but who now feel out of place and experience traumatic wartime memories and survivor’s guilt.

Save the Tiger also explores compounding immorality. Harry is tempted to do increasingly immoral things to keep his business afloat and find joy and meaning in life, including hiring prostitutes for clients, covering up his client’s heart attack, having an arsonist torch his office for an insurance payout, and sleeping with a hitchhiker he just met. wrote: “The film certainly represents the slippery slope of wrongdoing. It can be inferred, coincidentally just before Watergate came to light, that small crimes only lead to larger crimes. Harry is so cynical, he sees little distinction. “Arson or fraud, it is the same accommodations,” he declares.”

The flaws of capitalism are fully on display, as well. Save the Tiger demonstrates how businesses need to cut corners, make compromises, and even – in extreme circumstances – risk lives to stay alive. Nathan Rabin of the AV Club wrote: “(The film) never allows viewers to forget that it's also about the ethics and morality of capitalism—capitalism as warfare, capitalism as prostitution, and the conflict between a rosy, idealized conception of nostalgic American innocence and the raucous, irreverent rebellion of the counterculture.”

Similar works

  • Glengarry Glen Ross
  • Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
  • The Paper
  • American Beauty
  • Death of a Salesman

Other films by John G. Avildsen

  • Rocky
  • The Karate Kid
  • Lean on Me


Book 'em, Kirk-o

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Last week, our CineVerse group closely examined Detective Story, the 1951 film directed by William Wyler and based on a play by Sidney Kingsley (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here). Arguably, Detective Story is more of a police procedural than a proper noir. The movie is interesting not just because it’s set entirely in a police station within a bustling New York precinct over the course of one day and night. It’s also fascinating because the main character – Detective Jim McLeod (played by Kirk Douglas) – is, on one hand, a tough and relentless cop known for his dedication to his job and his uncompromising approach to justice, but on the other hand, he’s a deeply flawed and conflicted individual, haunted by his past and struggling to come to terms with his own failings.

The making of Detective Story was notable for its use of innovative camera techniques and its ensemble cast, which included several prominent actors of the era, such as William Bendix, Lee Grant, and Joseph Wiseman. The film was also praised for its realistic portrayal of police work and its nuanced depiction of complex characters.

What makes Detective Story a thought-provoking film worthy of retrospection? It’s essentially the filming of a popular stage play that takes place entirely in a single locale. Shooting such a confined story in a sole setting was likely challenging for the filmmakers, as the set and clustering of actors can become tedious and repetitive. For visual oomph, director William Wyler chose to employ deep-focus cinematography in which characters in the foreground, middle ground, and background are all in focus and we have multiple planes of characters to concentrate on in the same shot. Likewise, he occasionally uses overlapping dialogue – relatively rare at the time – to underscore how frenetic a police station can be.

This would have been a controversial film for the early 1950s in that Dr. Schneider is assumed to be an illegal abortionist. He’s not called as such in the film, but audiences then and today can interpret that he was terminating pregnancies illicitly. Additionally, the Breen censorship office normally would not permit a police officer to be killed, but they made an exception for this movie because the murder of McLeod is not premeditated and the killing serves an important dramatic purpose that makes his character more sympathetic.

Consider how our allegiance toward McLeod dramatically shifts as the story progresses and we learn how violent, ill-tempered, and resentful he is. Even though Schneider is a loathsome character, we cringe at how McLeod continually breaks the law in his violent treatment of the suspect and digs his own grave. The final straw comes when McLeod pathetically rejects Mary for the second time. His character is redeemed somewhat at the conclusion, however, when McLeod practically begs Gennini to shoot him and put him out of his misery, after which he drops his case against Arthur.

It’s somewhat refreshing to see an African-American police officer character in a 1951 film. Granted, Russell Evans as officer Steve Barnes isn’t given much to do or say, but it’s a small sign of racial progress in a Hollywood feature nonetheless.

Sadly, this movie reveals sexist gender politics of the time, putting Mary through the wringer for getting pregnant out of wedlock and having multiple lovers before marrying McLeod, for which he called her a tramp. New Yorker critic Richard Brody wrote: “William Wyler’s 1951 drama shows the dangers that women face when abortion is illegal—and suggests that an underlying sociopathology, the control of women’s sex lives, drives men to ban abortion…The drama’s tension involves the destructive extremes of masculinity, linking strength and courage with pitiless judgment and sexual domination; the essential subject is society’s—rather, men’s—obsession with women’s virginity, and the film’s liberal-minded perspective brings a hint of reality to rigid Hollywood mores.”

Among the major themes underpinning the story is the message of “bend or break.” McLeod is too obsessed and rigid to change his extreme views on law, order, and retribution. His intransigence and adherence to a hyper-masculine code of self-righteous ethics leads to his downfall, including the likely loss of his job, the dissolution of his marriage, the loss of respect from his boss and peers, and ultimately his life.

Another reading? Forgiveness, mercy, and empathy are as important as justice and safety. McLeod isn’t willing to give war hero Arthur a break or forgive his wife’s actions as a younger unmarried woman. Detective Story demonstrates that police officers need to be flexible and compassionate human beings who can benefit from better work/life balance.

Detective Story also serves as a rumination on the dangers of taking the lawn into your own hands. McLeod tries to play judge, jury, and executioner in addition to his role as detective, and his heavy-handed methods of interrogation and personal punishment are more than reprehensible – they’re illegal. Sadly, many other officers on the force practice similar physically violent methods of coercion and vengeance that were more widely tolerated decades ago.

Significant takeaway #4: The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Despite his intentions and determination, McLeod turns out to be just as violent, recalcitrant, and psychologically twisted as his father, whom he vowed never to emulate.

Similar works

  • The Desperate Hours
  • Glengarry Glen Ross and Homicide, both by David Mamet
  • Dragnet
  • His Girl Friday/The Front Page, The Petrified Forest
  • The Sniper
  • The Naked City
  • Call Northside 777
  • Boomerang
  • Panic in the Street

Other films by William Wyler

  • The Best Years of Our Lives
  • Ben Hur
  • Wuthering Heights
  • Mrs. Miniver
  • Roman Holiday
  • Dodsworth
  • The Little Foxes
  • The Heiress
  • Funny Girl


Cineversary podcast marks King Kong's 90th birthday with Phil Tippett, Ray Morton, and Richard Correll

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Phil Tippett, Ray Morton, and Richard Correll
In Cineversary podcast episode #57, host Erik Martin celebrates the 90th birthday of King Kong with three great guests: visual effects master Phil Tippett; Ray Morton, author of King Kong: The History of a Movie Icon from Fay Wray to Peter Jackson; and TV actor, director, screenwriter, and producer Richard Correll. Together, they take the scenic route from Skull Island to the Empire State Building as they explore why Kong still matters, how it’s stood the test of time, its huge influence on cinema, and more.

To listen to this episode, click here or click the "play" button on the embedded streaming player below. Or, you can stream, download, or subscribe to Cineversary wherever you get your podcasts, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Audible, Castbox, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, and Overcast.

Learn more about the Cineversary podcast at and email show comments or suggestions to 


A moody marriage milestone

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

45 Years, a 2015 British drama film directed by Andrew Haigh and starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, tells the story of Kate and Geoff Mercer, a couple who are about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. Suddenly, they receive news that the body of Geoff's former lover has been found perfectly preserved in the Swiss Alps, 50 years after she fell to her death while they were on a hiking trip. The news causes Geoff to become increasingly preoccupied with memories of his former lover, which leads Kate to question the strength and depth of their own relationship. As they prepare for their anniversary party, their marriage begins to unravel as secrets and hidden emotions are revealed. 

The film was well received by critics and was nominated for numerous awards, including an Academy Award for Best Actress for Charlotte Rampling.
Our CineVerse squad parsed this picture last week, discussing several key merits and themes (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).
What makes 45 years special? First, the performances by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are equally impressive and spectacular. Rampling’s pondering eyes and subtly vulnerable facial expressions and body language speak volumes about this character’s snowballing misgivings and gradual unraveling, and Courtenay perfectly embodies an increasingly frail and flawed husband who insists on living in the past and not so secretly pines for what could have been.
45 Years also benefits immensely from an ingenious sound design graced by diegetic as well as imagined sounds that color our perception of what Kate is experiencing and sometimes serve as narrative foreshadowing. For example, the film opens to black background credits paired with the strange rhythmic noise of a slide projector, which prefigures a later scene in which she actually operates a slide projector in the loft; interestingly, during that later scene, we hear the projector clicks as well as the eerie echoes of crashing waves – suggesting that she is imagining Geoff and Katya on the boat where the pictures from the slide projector were taken decades ago. Additionally, early on we hear Kate humming the song Smoke Gets in Your Eyes – attuned that later plays as a bittersweet musical eulogy of sorts during the anniversary party.
Consider, too, how the pop music soundtrack and the lyrics to some of these songs seemingly comment on the emotional status of Kate and her relationship with Geoff. Cases in point: (1) the lines “You’ve kept the secret of our youth/Now it hurts to know the truth” from the song Young Girl by Gary Puckett & the Union Gap; (2) the lyrics, “When a lovely flame dies/smoke gets in your eyes,” from that tune; and (3) “We've already said "goodbye"/Since you gotta go, oh you'd better/Go now, go now, go now (go now, ooh)/Before you see me cry?” from the Moody blues song Go Now that plays over the end credits. Each of these speaks aloud what Kate is likely thinking.
Small gestures, subtle actions, and simple verbal exchanges carry momentous importance in 45 Years. For proof, ponder Kate’s very last act on the dance floor: Geoff raises their held hands in anniversary triumph at the coda of their first (and likely last) dance, but Kate pulls her hand away and down in an act of rejection, anger, and disgust. The film also refrains from character speechifying, thankfully, allowing Courtenay and Rampling’s nonverbal moments to fill in any blanks for the audience. We are given any grandiose weepy breakdown scene or major shouting match.
Director Andrew Haigh often prefers long shots that keep his characters at a distance, often juxtaposed against vast landscapes. Recall the shot where Geoff and Kate are conversing somewhat far away in their garden, the conversation of which we cannot hear.
The POV in 45 Years is decidedly Kate’s. And it’s easy to empathize with her and her emotional state as she discovers troubling new things about her husband and his past. But arguably, the film doesn’t take sides in this relationship. Geoff can be viewed as a sympathetic character whose past romance and romantic feelings for a dead lover resurface after her preserved body is discovered decades later – an understandable reaction. Also, Kate chooses to inquire about this previous relationship and probe deeper, which is also understandable. The movie asks serious and important questions about this couple and their bonds.
Criterion Collection essayist Ella Taylor wrote: “45 Years shows how half a century can turn to ash in a few short days…In 45 Years, it takes decades of familiarity for two people to discover that they’re strangers…Is Geoff a superannuated child in need of coddling by his sensible wife, or was he cheated, through Katya’s death, of the more free-spirited life he craved? Is Kate no more than an uncomprehending put-down artist who feels obliged to point out that her husband has made multiple fruitless efforts to read Kierkegaard, or is she exactly the woman he needs to keep him down-to-earth? Haigh won’t tip his hand, though you may draw your own conclusions from the wind rustling through dead leaves that haven’t yet dropped from a tree, or the inexplicably desolate cries of children at play.”
It’s perhaps telling that Geoff and Kate never had children, while Katya was pregnant by Geoff, and they don’t showcase couple photographs about their home.
The movie is replete with subtexts, as well. Among its major themes: Time does not heal all wounds. Memories, suspicions, and past romances can haunt and even doom a longstanding relationship.
In fact, time is a constant motif and audiovisual presence in 45 years, as well, as evidenced by the continual use of ticking and chiming clocks, clock faces, and mentions of watches.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing is another message explored. By choosing to more closely examine her husband’s past relationship with a lover, Kate learns harsh truths and is burdened by doubt, mistrust, and resentment. Her discovery that Katya was pregnant with Geoff’s child before she was killed only drives the wedge further between her and her husband.
45 Years further examines the dangers of yearning for, regretting, and being preoccupied with the past. It has become apparent to Kate that Geoff is living her life with him in the shadow of his past romance with Katya, a dead woman who has lately inspired him to read books she liked, recall the perfume she wore, and go digging through photographs and scrapbooks that memorialize their relationship.
The reckoning – and wrecking – of a marriage is a central tenet, too. Kate ostensibly comes to realize that she’s been living something of a lie with Geoff, a man she’s been married to for 45 years but who, in her mind, chose her as a consolation prize to his former lost love. Sydney Morning Herald critic Sandra Hall wrote: “The Mercers had persuaded themselves that they'd become resigned to these signs of irrevocable change, but the discovery in the ice has shown otherwise. As Geoff sees her, Katya is his own Sleeping Beauty, destined to remain ageless and live on as a silent rebuke to his own inevitable decline into decrepitude. In mourning her, he's not only toying with tantalising possibilities forever unrealised, he's grieving for his youth. For Kate, it's even worse. You can't fight a ghost, so there's no one to blame for the irrational fits of jealousy undermining the state of wisdom she thought she had achieved. As well as frustrated, she feels diminished.” Recall, also, how Kate says: “It’s like she’s been standing in the corner of the room all this time, behind my back. It’s tainted everything.”

Lastly, ponder the inescapability of age and decrepitude as a further thematic element. Geoff is beginning to lose his memory, injure himself, and require more TLC from Kate, and he can’t perform in the bedroom as his younger self did.

Similar works

  • Before Midnight
  • Amour
  • Faithless
  • Last Night
  • Reconstruction
  • In the Mood For Love
  • Another Year
  • The Big Chill
  • Under the Sand
  • James Joyce’s The Dead

Other films by Andrew Haigh

  • Weekend
  • Lean on Pete
  • Looking: The Movie (HBO)


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