45 Dreary Years

September 2, 2015 § 10 Comments

Both actors in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years – Charlotte Rampling (69), the tigerish vamp of the 1970s, and Tom Courtenay (78), whose repertoire has always tended towards the more subdued kind of role – received awards at the Berlin Film Festival, and the film was judged Best British Film in Edinburgh. Unlike other recent British films about being old, where pensioners behave badly to sentimental comedic effect (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Quartet etc), 45 Years is meant to be taken seriously.
Rampling and Courtney give creditable performances that hold together the story of Kate and Geoff, a couple whose 45-year marriage begins to crumble as details are revealed about the distant time before it began, when Geoff’s first love died in an accident in the Swiss Alps. The crisis unfolds largely from the perspective of Kate, immediately crushed at the breakfast table when Geoff opens a letter telling him that the young body of ‘my Katya’ has been found preserved in the ice. Kate’s attempts to comfort Geoff in his sadness are not sustained and though she pursues the practicalities of their imminent anniversary party her jealousy deepens into a sense that the whole marriage has been a sham.
All this is conveyed with a minimum of dialogue. Rampling’s mobile and expressive face does most of the talking, particularly when she is alone, searching in the attic for Geoff’s past or persisting in her suspicions about his travel plans. The mood is stubbornly melancholic, with long shots of the wintry Norfolk landscape where Kate takes the dog for walks. She is tight-lipped and unhappy, Geoff is depressed and unshaven.
The trouble is there’s nothing to persuade us that this marriage was anything other than dull. There’s no erotic spark between the two and nothing to suggest that they ever had any shared passion or profound intimacy, or even that they might once have had a good time together, either in or out of bed. The relationship we see has been sluggish and narrow; they neither embrace the world nor one another.
The result is an overblown film of great tedium. But 45 years isn’t just boring, a 90-minute view of a landscape that’s physically and emotionally empty, inhabited by characters with few inner resources and without close friends (you can’t count the Geraldine James character, who flits in and out like a clueless chum from a sitcom). Its thinness of social texture also implies that this aridity is what constitutes life in older age.
The opening sequences are characterised by long silences and awkward politesse in a manner that suggests we are somewhere in the filmic world of the 1950s, recalling that testament to the suppressed emotions of British middle-class life, Brief Encounter. Is this what accounts for the critical success of 45 Years? A nostalgia for that ill-fitting and outdated world, through a latter-day version with two classy actors? It’s as if Rampling and Courtney (who can easily signify the cinema of the 60s and early 70s) are being recast not as their own generation in the present, but as older versions of themselves in the past. Hence the emphatic mismatch between them and the party soundtrack that is meant to correspond to their youth.
It’s only at the film’s end, and the ghastly anniversary party, that script and direction achieve some conviction. By then 45 Years begins to sound like a custodial sentence.

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§ 10 Responses to 45 Dreary Years

  • Denise O'Connor says:

    Really like your observation that they seem recast as older versions of their 60’s/70’s cinema selves rather than a complex updating. Haven’t seen it, and most likely won’t now, but your response makes me wonder what the motivation for such a film might be. Is it just a poorly conceived and dreary film, unable to imagine how that generation might negotiate the complexities of ageing in 21st C world or an angry assault on it? Reflecting on the hysterical fear that Jeremy Corbyn’s extraordinary appeal has generated, and the orchestrated attempts to dismiss or bury his political belief’s as “stuck in the 1960’s”, I’m wondering about another kind of return of the repressed into our current political and social present. Thanks as ever Liz for a stimulating review!

  • What is it about the Alps that makes everyone set their stories of crumbling relationships there at present. Just in the last year we have had Force Majeure and Clouds of Sils Maria. and now this.Could it be that global warming is giving us all a sudden sense of the impermanence of a snowy landscape we thought would be for ever?

    • Liz Heron says:

      It’s true,there are more frozen bodies being uncovered as glaciers retreat, ever since the Iceman (now in Bolzano), but this year’s crop of Alpine themes might just be coincidental. Sils Maria is down to Nietzsche, and in it you see extracts from a 1926 film by Arnold Fanck (which starred Leni Riefenstahl). Then there was the Sound of Music.…

  • Mandy Macdonald says:

    So our decision to see Tom Courtenay hamming it up like mad in ‘The legend of Barney Thomson’ instead was a sound one …

  • Ang says:

    Hmm ! how different people react . I was fully engaged , watching the nuance inside each gesture , and trying to guess at the internal world . Even the drab, damp , long shots of the landscape resonated with boredom and repetition of long term lives . I understood their familiar attempts at physical contact and the metaphor of staleness and compassion .
    It was not a waste of my time .

  • Martin Upham says:

    Yes I’m afraid the pendulum is swinging. It was bleak alright but then many marriages are. The drama of the film lay in the descent from dull nothingness to something like horror, vividly conveyed by Rampling as she slowly grasped that hers retained nothing of value. Its key moment was not the party – which merely revealed to the cast what the audience already knew – but her finding a photo of Courtenay’s evidently pregnant girlfriend of half a century before.

  • I saw this film differently . This is an ‘old ‘marriage between 2 white middle class ‘ middle age ‘home county’ type people . very English , no emotional histrionics allowed here but certainly closeness & friendship.
    There is a hint of a spark in the very joyful little jitterbug performed early on in the film by the couple.. Then the letter arrives .She ,his wife,is clearly curious , suspicious even .Her husband admits without any explanation that had she not died yes he would have married the girl . Rampling looks for clues, there is the discovery of old photos and of the pregnancy.. The painful last dance (in contrast to the earlier one in the film) says it all :It is all body language & silences . To me it is a comment on class,& gender , on emotional illiteracy . A film with a definite undertow.

  • Clare Moynihan says:

    I absolutely agree Christine! The concepts of ‘class, gender and emotional illiteracy’ kept me riveted throughout as did the question of jealousy over a past relationship – not often spoken about but common enough. I must say that I left the cinema feeling dejected as the film indicated to me at least, that there was nowhere to go – a state of marriage that I believe is woefully common, even when some version of the truth is revealed. Dreary? No! A very thoughtful film – beautifully acted. ( Isn’t ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ a song of despair? )

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