45 Years is a very fine and wise film, modest enough in scale to feel like a stage play, with a play’s emphasis on dialog. A comfortably retired couple is a few days away from hosting a big party with their many friends to celebrate 45 years of marriage. What could possibly go wrong?
What’s it all about
45 Years shows the fragility of close relationships, and their vulnerability to what used to be called problems in communicating: withheld experiences, inattention to what the other person is saying and implying, insensitivity to emotional pain other than one’s own, and failure to offer clarifying reassurance when reassurances are requested. It is in part about general relationship obtuseness in men.
The primary function of the few minor characters seems to be to articulate the larger themes rippling from this marriage of Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay).
A woman friend of Kate’s explains the disparate attitudes of men and women, broadly seen: men foolishly think that career success and accomplishments matter most, while women know that relationships are far more important.
That friend should have firmly told Geoff, too, but in this film’s world such a friendly dope-slap is not possible. You can remind someone else’s husband that he will have to deliver a speech at the party, but that is about the limit of involvement. Kate is mostly on her own.
The idle and ailing Geoff laments not having a purpose any more, but all the time he is complaining about this void, his purpose is nearby making his dinner.
The primacy of personal relationships means that relationships must be constantly attended to by the women in the film, since the men cannot do this well. They are hardly aware that it needs doing or is being done for them.
Reminding men to shave and driving them to town are fine symbols of larger care, but they are not just symbols. Relationships involve practical, quotidian support.
Kate’s friend believes that some public rituals, like wedding anniversary parties, must be used to get men to cry, i.e. to realize that they care and to show that caring in public.
A letter arrives
The inciting incident is a classic: an unexpected letter arrives. Like verbal communications in this film, the letter is opaque (because Geoff’s knowledge of German has never been good).
The inciting incident deeply affects Geoff, but the film is far more interested in Kate’s evolving reaction to his reaction. That’s good: Kate is more interesting than her brooding, uncommunicative, and self-absorbed husband. Geoff’s feelings are never fully articulated, so that like Kate the audience is at various moments sympathetic, concerned, perplexed, wary, suspicious, hopeful, and annoyed.
Throughout 45 Years, the camera pays the close attention to Kate’s subtle facial expressions that Geoff should pay, but does not. Charlotte Rampling is an accomplished actor who enriches and inflects both dialog and silence, so the lingering closeups are rewarding.
The fundamental question
Geoff is almost as dense as the cement his former employer made, and so he does not make clear to Kate (or the audience, or himself) whether the news from Switzerland prompts him to grieve for his former lover, or for his own lost youth and his own mortality.
This matters. If he is grieving for The Other Woman, Kate is justified in feeling angry and estranged. But if he is grieving for himself, Kate is acting like a jealous teenager. My sense is that Geoff is grieving for himself, but his blundering explanations plausibly convince Kate that he grieves for his former lover.
Kate’s most horrifying understanding, or misunderstanding, is that she has been a surrogate for Katia (Katya?). She seems to first suspect this when she learns that their hair was the same color (if you can trust Geoff’s distracted answer). They have no children, perhaps a decision he pushed because he cannot have children with Katia. Maybe he chose the breed of their dog as a symbolic replication of Katia’s dog.
Now those possibilities would be a serious blow to one’s ego and one’s certainties: what if much of this marriage was a continuation of the earlier affair by other means? Kate prefers classical music, but Geoff still listens to pop music from his and Katia’s youth. The possibility of intentional parallelism is creepy, insulting, and destabilizing, worse than a similar trope in Vertigo.
Then again, Kate might be all wrong about that parallel business. Lots of women have brown hair, and apparently Geoff did not obsess about Katia’s death until the letter arrived.
Right, wrong, we’ll never know. But Kate believes she has been a make-do surrogate for Katia. In her own way, Kate too slides unexpectedly down an icy crevice, and she takes the marriage with her, as Katia took the baby.
In most people, youthful self-centeredness gives way to the understanding that we are all equals in some regards.
Geoff seems to still struggle against the big and little insults of the passage of time, but the wiser Kate has already reached acceptance. In the first scene, she asks a former student to call her “Kate” since she is now just another person, not a superior in a school hierarchy. Planning the party, she wants no “top table” like that of her wedding, because she is now an equal to all the others in the room.
Kate’s suspicions and anger peak just as the party starts. The audience knows that this party is a show-down, the big test, the crisis that will restore or end the marriage. We have been told that Geoff must deliver a speech, and we know exactly what should be said.
We also know (from hearing wedding and retirement speeches gone awry) that there are as many don’ts as there are dos. When Geoff says that he has not written or prepared a speech, that it is all in his head, our alarm bells are going off. At least he shaved.
The speech itself is a masterpiece of well-intentioned blunders and ambiguity. Kate’s final gesture tells us her reaction, a symbolic act that reminded me of one made by the young Tom Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962).
While the scale and intimacy of 45 Years suggests a stage play, director Andrew Haigh knows how to show not tell. He has given us some quietly wonderful frames, some of which subtly suggest Kate’s increasing movement away from Geoff. I am looking forward to a second viewing, and I suspect that this film will last, as both a well-made film and as a cautionary tale.