45 Years (2015) — Forever Tainted
Andrew Haigh’s Weekend is about as good a film as Britain has managed to produce fifteen years into the twenty-first century. Set in a London of run-down flats and bleak nights out, it follows a pair of men as they talk their way from a one night stand to the brink of something more meaningful. A powerful response to the growing factionalism of the online world, Weekend’s characters have radically different attitudes towards society and sexuality and yet they still manage to sense something of value in each other. Despite being a very talky film, Weekend is all about those moments of silence in which emotional energies shift and life is made anew. Haigh’s ability to capture what happens in the intimate spaces surrounding conversation is what made Weekend great and what has made 45 Years one of the great unexpected cinematic successes of the summer (despite being released on VOD at the same time and being largely ignored by multiplexes).
The film opens with Charlotte Rampling’s Kate taking her enormous dog for a walk through the countryside. As she walks up her garden path, she trades pleasantries with the postman and so informs us that she was once a local teacher and has retained her links to the community.
Sat at the couple’s kitchen table is Tom Courtenay’s Geoff, a slightly grizzled man whose quavering voice and awkward gestures betray frailty where once there was strength. This morning finds Geoff particularly weak as he has just received a letter from a local council in Switzerland: They have found the body of his ex-girlfriend Katya after more than fifty years. Kate is immediately supportive but the news seems to hit Geoff a lot harder than you might expect… he immediately resumes smoking and seems oddly distant for the rest of the day.
Geoff’s psychological distance comes at something of an awkward time as the couple are in the process of preparing a huge party to celebrate their forty-fifth wedding anniversary. Sensitive to Geoff’s state of mind and acutely aware of the fact that the couple did not celebrate their fortieth anniversary as a result of Geoff’s heart problems, Kate continues preparing the party alone but everywhere she looks are reminders of Switzerland; the painting of a mountain here, a sign advertising Swiss watches there. The traces are subtle but they are warnings of an obsession to come.
Haigh shot the film in what appears to have been early spring. The grass is green and the trees are beginning to bud but winter remains a tangible enough presence that the weather can still urn nasty at the drop of the hat. The decision to shoot the film at the turn of the season works beautifully as it invites us to view the film’s backdrop as a commentary on Geoff and Kate’s marriage: It’s been a long haul but things are starting to turn and maybe the rapidly-approaching wedding anniversary will spark renewal. Haigh also works with his environment by using foley microphones to capture every tapping toe and creaking floorboard. At night, the wind howls around the couple’s home as though driven by the emotional maelstrom within.
Geoff’s obsession manifests itself as a transgressive and incomprehensible departure from the couple’s normal rhythms of life. Once a left-wing firebrand, Geoff had become a calm and bookish man who seldom went outside until the discovery of the body triggers an unexpected interest in global warming. Suddenly, he is worrying about recycling, berating his friends and demanding to be taken to the local library to do research. Over lunch, he explains that Europe’s glaciers are melting, causing the water to collect underground before finally spilling from the earth and destroying everything in its wake. This sudden interest in glaciers is quite obviously sparked by the discovery of his ex-girlfriend’s body but it is also an attempt to articulate feelings of unhappiness that have been building for years. Geoff is miserable and the misery is about to erupt from the earth and destroy his forty-five year marriage to Kate.
Rampling is magnificent as she allows Kate’s concern to harden into anger. Sympathetic at first, she soon becomes frustrated and hurt as Geoff’s nostalgia for his ex-girlfriend drives him to begin revisiting his youth in all sorts of unhelpful ways. She likes the dancing and the unexpected interest in sex but she’s unsettled when he spends his nights going through the loft and a suggestion that he open his eyes during sex causes him to immediately lose his erection. Geoff is not there… he no longer belongs to Kate… he has given himself over completely to the past.
The penny finally drops when Kate steals into the loft and finds what appears to be a makeshift shrine: Geoff’s old journals sitting beside a projector filled with pictures of a noticeably pregnant Katya. Suddenly, Kate realises that this is not about nostalgia or escapism but regret. Regret all the way down to the bone that changes everything about the previous forty-five years. Did they not have kids because they didn’t want them or because Geoff had already lost one? Did they not take pictures because they weren’t vain or because Geoff had all the sentimental keepsakes he needed up in the loft? Furious, Kate confronts Geoff who immediately admits his mistake and returns to the present but Kate is no longer certain of Geoff’s feelings.
The film ends with Geoff and Kate hosting their forty-fifth wedding anniversary. The party is a huge success and all of their friends have looked through their collection of old photos to produce the kind of keepsake that was conspicuously absent from the couple’s over-stocked home. Geoff gives a speech in which he pledges himself to Kate and weeps as he expresses his gratitude and hopes for the future but Rampling’s face is a mask of anger. Her discovery of Geoff’s shrine has created an obsession that causes her to withdraw from the present in much the same way as Geoff seemed to retreat into his own memory after receiving the letter. Suddenly, Kate is obsessed with the idea that her entire life has been shaped by Geoff’s obsession with another woman. As Kate says, the stench of Katya’s perfume is now everywhere in the house… the dead woman’s fingerprints are on everything the couple shared and everything they have become. Geoff did not just live a lie, he trapped Kate in his lie and convinced her that the lie was real. As she dances with her husband of forty-five years, Kate realises the depths of her misery and the sheer scope of her anger… her life was a lie and her efforts to celebrate such a life are a monstrosity. The day Katya disappeared down that fissure in the ice, she took Geoff and Kate with her.