The film “45 Years”, starring great British actors Charlotte Rampling and Sir Tom Courtenay, is a quiet contemplation on marriage and whether you can ever truly know another person. The film is based on the short story “In Another Country”, by David Constantine. The film was directed by Andrew Haigh.
Rampling and Courtenay star as Kate and Geoff Mercer — a childless couple preparing to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. Within the first 10 minutes of this film, I began to feel a little envious of the tranquillity and harmony of this elderly couple’s life in rural Norfolk: long walks with their German shepherd dog Max, endless cups of tea, leisurely trips into beautiful Norwich, boat trips on the Norfolk Broads, and evenings spent reading good books and listening to classical music. Yet something in their interaction seemed slightly off. They are polite and respectful toward each other, but not like a long-term couple, more like 2 people sharing a holiday rental.
And then we begin to watch this marriage unravel before our very eyes. A letter from the Swiss authorities arrives for Geoff stating that the body of his long-ago German girlfriend, who fell down a glacier during a 1962 hiking holiday with Geoff, has been recovered. “They’ve found Katya,” he tells Kate. “My Katya.” Kate makes a joke about Katya probably being perfectly preserved in the ice (Ice? It’s impossible not to think, immediately, that Katya is perfectly preserved), but we see her smile disappear before our very eyes. The news has begun to shake Kate’s faith in the relationship, and we are beginning to see how this story could evolve: with love teetering on the precipice of disdain.
This becomes even more inevitable due to Geoff’s increasingly vague and obsessive behaviour. He starts smoking again, disappears into Norwich to borrow a library book on climate change, and enquires with the local travel agent about flights to Switzerland. Then after a bout of aborted love making with Kate, he disappears into the attic to find a photo of Katya and view 35mm slides of their Swiss holiday together.
It slowly dawns on Kate that she’s been in line behind a ghost all this time, playing second violin to a memory that’s more alive than anything real. When she pays a secret visit to the attic herself, reads Geoff’s travel diary and views those 35mm slides, she makes the discovery that Katya was pregnant when she died. The choice of dog breed, the rose perfume Geoff uses to freshen up the house, the decision not to have children, down to the choice of books they read and holidays they go on, all quietly engineered by Geoff to somehow keep Katya alive. Ultimately, Kate confronts Geoff about the ghost in their marriage: “She’s been standing in the corner of this room, all along, behind my back.”
45 Years is essentially uneventful, but it is devastating. Anyone with enough life experience to know the unattractive possibilities available in even the most boring scenario will find the movie deeply affecting. We’re all far more alone than we know, separated from one another by the usual secrets and lies. How do you celebrate your 45th wedding anniversary when one half of the couple is on a different plane? And when the other half realises she’s not the woman her husband loves but the woman who would provide companionship to fill a void? In a bizarre mental leap, I thought of Eva Braun, a good woman who had her entire adult life stolen from under her by a monster.