The past, as Faulkner continues to remind us, is never over; it’s never even the past. Faulkner was thinking about the American South, but his remark is even truer of marriage, that well-nigh impossible institution on which every civilization has been founded. Plato thought it ought to be abolished, and the Free Love Sixties had another go at it before AIDS spoiled the party. Like a Rube Goldberg machine, no one’s ever been able to figure out how to make it work, but no one’s ever figured out how to replace it either.
We tend to think—wishfully—that long-lived marriages develop a survivor’s manual. People adjust to each other’s foibles; they are invested in a shared history. It may not be exciting to stay, but it’s riskier to leave. The opposite, though, may well be truer. If suddenly you discover that the partner you thought you knew was not the person you’d assumed, the shock may be all the greater for the length of time you’d been deceived. Marriage is, after all, a partnership between strangers, and the biggest mistake you can make is thinking you know who’s really beside you in bed.
This is the situation that presents itself between Geoff and Kate Mercer, the protagonists of Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years. They’ve been married just that length of time, and have decided to celebrate with a big party. Geoff (Tom Courtenay) is a retired plant manager in his seventies who’s feeling his age; Kate (Charlotte Rampling) is in her mid-sixties and still sturdy. Childless, they’ve reached the stage of life where one partner has begun to manage decline for the other. They treat each other with a genuine if routine affection. As in a nineteenth-century novel, however, a letter arrives at the breakfast table, and everything changes.
Its recipient is Geoff, and what he learns is that Katya, the girl friend of his youth who died while on a trip with him in the Swiss Alps half a century before, has been discovered, frozen and possibly preserved by a glacier. He Is informed of this as next of kin, a subterfuge he used to travel with her in the still-puritanical Switzerland of the early 1960s. Katya was also, as Kate will discover, pregnant at the time of her death with the child Geoff would never have.
Geoff and Kate are entirely decent people; Geoff just happens to have a past. He hasn’t concealed the story of his earlier love from Kate, but he hasn’t told the whole truth either—how could, and why should he have? The shocking letter, though, brings long-buried emotions to the surface. There’s the question, too, of whether Geoff should go to Katya’s funeral. No, he admits to Kate, he wasn’t Katya’s husband, but he would have married her had she lived, and so their own marriage—their forty-five years—would never have been. Doesn’t he owe Katya’s lost life—and his own—a moment of respect beside her final resting-place?
Geoff does his best to assure Kate that their life together has been his real one, but how, now, can he convince her of this, or for that matter himself? Their party is six days away, and each one, chronicled separately, is an agony. Naturally, they don’t fight; they’re British. Geoff goes back to smoking, despite a coronary bypass; Kate takes long walks and hunts for clues. Geoff gives up on burying Katya: the living must take precedence over the dead. It’s bad enough for Kate, though, that he entertained the thought. She knows, she tells him proudly, that she’s been good enough for him. The only question is whether he knows this himself.
The film climaxes with the party, for which both Geoff and Kate put on a brave face. They are, after all, still partners, aren’t they? They will eat supper and go to bed, Kate says, and wake up and go on. But they will also know themselves to be strangers.
Geoff’s tribute speech at the party is a profession of renewed love for Kate which both is and isn’t true—what, after all, is a divided heart to do? Kate makes her response in the sudden gesture than ends the film. It is swift, shocking, and final: or is it? When it’s too late for anything but death to end a marriage is, perhaps, where hell begins.
British director Alan Haigh, now in his early forties, has been previously noted for his gay-themed films, but his attempt to depict an intimate straight relationship is a sensitive and impressive debut. At first, he seems excessively enamored of long shots of the Norfolk countryside where the film is set, but the landscape and its weathers gradually enters the story itself, and the focus gets tighter as the drama develops. Charlotte Rampling’s Kate is superb. Much of her acting takes place alone, and the fifty shades of pain her face silently registers is a feat that calls to mind the talents of the actress whose expressiveness has for me been long unrivaled, Vanessa Redgrave. Tom Courtenay’s Geoff is more a man thrashing, at odds with himself, but his big party speech is beautifully realized. Both actors won prizes for their work at the Berlin International Film Festival, and deservedly so. Rampling was also an Oscar nominee, but subtlety—and older actresses—is not what Oscar wants to reward. They talked a lot about racism the other night at the Oscars, but ageism is a problem the Academy might want to grapple with one of these days too.