Blog Directory CineVerse: A moody marriage milestone

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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