Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years
Geoff: You really believe you haven’t been enough for me?
Kate: No. I think I was enough for you, I’m just not sure you do
Friends and readers,
See it twice. You cannot understand the first half until you’ve seen the scene at the middle when Kate (Charlotte Rampling) finally climbs the folding ladder up to the attic of her and Geoff’s (Tom Courtenay) house to look at the album and slides he has apparently been looking at regularly for 45 years, and discovers with an intensely painful sound that Katja, the young woman her husband loved before he married Kate, had been pregnant. Katja died in an accident 50 years ago, so this occurred 5 years before Geoff met and married Kate. Geoff and Kate have had no children, only a series of beloved dogs.
Only then can you grasp, feel the build-up of emotional pain in both halves of the film, their repressed ideas as they spend Monday through Thursday together, leading to that climb, and then after the viewing Geoff’s return from a reunion forced on him (“Fucking endless” he calls it), at long last some talk between them about how this previous relationship has sown distrust and a comparative perspective between them, and the final anniversary party where at the height of the supposed joy Kate throws off Geoff’s arm and looks out at us with a look of such betrayal as to leave me breathless, wordless, all the while I know she may be wrong. It may be that Geoff found her enough even if she thinks she has been enough for him and that her idea he does not feel this is a form of self-flagellation. This is a story about the complex experience of long-term marriage.
One review, Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, has come near to doing justice to the depth and complexity of emotions dramatized in this story; but most say almost nothing, Ebert’s column carried on by others, or like A. O. Scott in the New York Times, too melodramatic, seeking some kind of climax. For the source in a David Constandine story see Stephen Dalton’s “Berlin Review.”
A central theme and set of insights is into the perpetual effect of memories in a relationship, as powerful even if never openly admitted to. The first time I went I found the experience salutary: Rampling and Courtenay teach us how self-control prevent us from the utterly counterproductive act of suicide when facing all that old age brings, how empathy is an achieved state of mind, made with steely effort out of kindness to the other and to ourselves.
Another of its undercurrents which rise to the surface, there all the time, not memory, is a deep discomfort, un-home-yness that has been part of this married couple’s life from its start. She smells a perfume in the air she thinks is one Katja used and she has never spoken of this until now. For 45 years she held her peace. He shakes his head.
The second time was cathartic. The two had discussed memories in ways that suggested he at least had striven to leave a somewhat false impression about the importance of this previous relationship, and she had lived with this cover-up. It was only in the second time as the film opened I realized the framing sound of snaps and a black screen were registering Jeff’s visits to the attic to look at the old slides of his possible pre-honeymoon in Switzerland Alps with Katja 50 years ago; I now could understand the coming of a letter from the Switzerland authorities that Katja’s corpse had been found led to Kate’s easy “finding” of a guidebook for Geoff that Geoff had put in the garage because Katja’s death had never been far from her (or his) memories and consciousness. I felt breathless with recognition. You don’t have to have the same particulars of memories.
The story line is simple. We begin on the arrival of a letter on a Monday morning of a week whose Saturday night is to culminate in an anniversary party for our hero and heroine. The POV is Kate’s (Rampling): Kate is in every scene and we see Geoff (Courtenay) through Kate’s eyes. However Haigh’s script (with its suggestions of other times and points of view) and Courtenay’s acting transcend Kate’s perspective so we experience his too.
The movie moves slowly proportionately imitating how we feel over each day’s routines. As each day is over the screen goes black and an intertitle of a typed day of the week appears. Tuesday Kate goes into town to look at possible presents for Geoff. Kate cannot get herself to buy Geoff an expensive watch. While in town she meets one of her true long-time friends (life supplies few of these), Nina (Geraldine James) and it’s in Kate and Nina’s conversations it’s confirmed what we had suspected from Kate’s dialogue with a vendor that Geoff is reluctant to go to his and her anniversary party this coming Saturday night. Kate is not keen herself on parties.
In the cafe
It’s through Nina we discover how Geoff is intensely put off by hypocrisies of social life, and Nina’s conversation enables us to grasp Geoff’s half-articulated disillusionment with what happened to the idealists he knew as a young man. Coming back from his reunion he reports “Red Len” now has a banker grandson, spends his days playing golf in an Arab emirate. He and Katja had been part of a generation who saw as courageous refusing to cooperate, who resisted being co-opted into middle class life and occupations after university. We learn that Kate looks upon such “bravery” as delusional and cowardly. That Nina still resents how in public Geoff had called her a fascist when she said “Thatcher had not made such a bad job of it.” Nina takes Kate to buy a dress; tells Kate that Kate must not give up the party, that Nina’s husband, George, had protested against their anniversary party and yet wanted it. It’s Nina who supplies a board of photos of Geoff and Kate over the years made up of snaps taken by friends on various occasions. Nina is the good woman friend lucky women hold onto over the years. She’s ordinary and good-natured: we see her encourage her husband in his latest fad of ukulele playing: if it add a note of jolliness, what’s the harm — it irritates Geoff how everyone goes on about this playing as if it were good.
Haigh imitates realities of older people’s lives. Nina and Kate spend time helping people twenty years older than themselves on a pleasure excursion boat. Nina is encouraging a daughter who lives with her to try a new profession as a photographer while the daughter (and apparently a grandchild) lives with Nina and George after the break-up of a marriage. I liked little touches: how the dog protests when Kate brings down the rickety ladder and climbs it up to the attic. My cats dislike when I bring down my ladder and climb up to my attic and can be heard walking about from the ceiling below.
Geoff and Kate are shown to have much satisfaction in life: they live in a beautiful suburban countryside in southern England; they are retired, read together. He cannot drive any more but she can and ferries him to where he wants to go. On the Wednesday night they remember happy moments and dance and try to make love late at night. He does not quite succeed and feels bad: we have learned he had a “bypass,” open heart surgery five years ago and is frail and should not smoke. He begins again after the letter arrives. Over the course of the week Kate finally allows herself to realize, to face that Geoff goes up to the attic to look at photos of Katja and the album regularly. He would go to Switzerland to retrieve the body if he could: Kate discovers this by going into town after he goes alone by bus and comes home late. But he has faced that he can hardly walk in town, much less climb a Swiss mountain to where her body lies. Courtenay speaks five moving soliloquys, two in bed, one with Kate by his side — they reminded me of Laurence Oliver’s final eloquent meditation in Brideshead Revisited just before his character’s death.
Kate has been asked to list music to be played at the anniversary party, and some of these 60s hits are heard across the film. The music functioned the way it had for Last Orders: as ironic commentary, reinforcement. All these years when Kate has heard one of Jeff’s tapes, “I only want to be with you” sung by Dusty Springfield, she has felt he was remembering Katja. The Turtles “Happy together” has been an exercise in self-doubt. Geoff is on best behavior all Saturday to show he does love Kate and wants to go to the party: he brings her tea in the early morning, scrambles eggs for them for breakfast, walks with her and their dog for the first time all movie long, leaves a present of a necklace for her. So she sits down to play music for the first time it seems in years at her piano. It might have been Sibellius but I am not sure. She grieves as she plays. One the way there she apologizes to Geoff for not buying the watch. He says that he does not like to know the time anyway. Throughout the film when given an opportunity he makes kind remarks to her. He tries to tell the truth: when she asks him if he would have married Katja had she not died, he says yes and repeats it; but then when she asks if he’s lying and they had married, he says no, it was a pretense so they could travel together. He is honest. This hurts, but it is better that way.
At the high point of the party Geoff is expected to get up and give a speech. This reminded me of other films where the male gets up and speechifies but never the female (Andrew Davies’s 1996 Emma had Mark Strong talking but not Kate Beckinsale as Emma) and I remember how when Jim retired at a party given for us two, he spoke and I didn’t. I didn’t want to but maybe I’ve been trained not to. When I got an award this November I had to read a short few lines I wrote for myself and then was intensely relieved to leave the limelight. He is relieved to sit down and as he has told her earlier he depends on her strength to get him through and kisses her hand:
Geoff and Kate had danced at their wedding The Platters: Smoke gets in your eyes.
I experienced a deep wrenching when she discovered from the photos in the attic that Katja was pregnant and again at the close. As I watched them under strobe lights though my Jim is dead, and he and I had been married 44 years and he died 3 days after we were together 45, and he and I will now never know such moments however ambivalent (anyway we never had the friends to invite to such a party) — I could take it. Tt was when Kate pushed Geoff’s triumphant hand away and looked at the camera with such ghastly alienation and the music blares out the Moody Blues‘ Go Now, I lost it, and had to leave the auditorium lest I cry out hysterically. It was indeed time for me to go now. I could escape. (The particulars of my story, the pain of these half-remembered memories, the half-lies has a different source.) Kate cannot escape her past and the “important choices” (as Geoff puts it in his speech) she made long ago, and she is holding on firm and enduring life as it has presented itself to her since, as is Geoff as her loving or at least peaceable companion. Their orderly existence is based on solvency, insight and shared acceptance. But it is also based on living with deep disillusionment, loneliness. Remember him sitting on that bench in the town smoking away when he knows to smoke is to kill himself.
The mise-en-scene is so quietly pleasurable. The photographs of southern English countryside are understated so alluring. The pace makes one feel one is experiencing this world. She does her own dishes. He takes books out of the library on climate change and geography. There is one oddity: no one has a cell phone; no one sits and looks at a computer. I know that people in their sixties, 40+ years married are often as constant interacting with others on their devices as younger people. This lack may have its source in the story adapted.
The foolish Oscar ceremony is coming up soon, and I’ve listed in another blog the four superb films in movie-houses I’ve seen in 2015: Mr Turner, I’ll Dream of You, Mr Holmes, and Kilo Two Bravo (on TV Wolf Hall). These are my candidates for awards. As I drove home, I tried to list the most recent profound films I’ve seen these actors in: Rampling in Night Porter and Sous la Sable; Courtenay in Little Dorrit, Last Orders, The Dresser, Geraldine James in Jewel in the Crown and She’s Been Away.
This is one of those for 2016 I will remember for a long time to come and recommend going to see — who says a film can’t be as complex and ethical as a novel?