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.