45 Years

Dir. Andrew Haigh. Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James

91 mins, UK, 2015

Adapted from a short story by David Constantine, this slow and creepy drama, set in the bleak Norfolk countryside, stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as wife and husband Kate and Geoff, whose 45-year marriage is undermined by a secret from the distant past.

In the midst of their preparations for a celebratory anniversary party, Geoff receives news that the body of the long-lost love of his youth has been uncovered from the glacier where it has lain for 50 years or so.
The film was lavishly and pretty much universally praised for the realism, or naturalism, of its portrayal of the long-term relationship of its two protagonists, and for the sensitivity of its take on love in old(er) age. But so much is off-key about this elderly couple and their relationship that I found it impossible to see the film as a portrayal of a happy marriage rocked to its foundations by an ancient secret.

I found myself asking:
Why had Kate given up the piano-playing she loved so much?
Why did Kate acquiesce in having a pet German Shepherd, when it was a breed she had always hated?
Why did Kate agree, after years of celibacy, to have, nay, to pretend enthusiasm for, sex with her unshaven horribly stubbled husband?
Who was the mystery person who had been dusting and tidying the attic and keeping it spotless (and keeping the home movie projector in perfect working order)?
What was with the weird knobbly pillowcases?

Hmm. Too much mystery, and not of the right kind. I didn’t care whether Geoff, or indeed anyone else, had or hadn’t pushed a girlfriend, pregnant or otherwise, off a mountainside 50 years earlier. I began to suspect that rather than the film offering us a compassionate portrait of a happy bourgeois marriage (prior to its being knocked off the rails), in fact we were being invited to watch, in coded form, a long-term abusive relationship: did Geoff forbid Kate to play the piano?; did he force her to keep a German Shepherd as a form of sadistic control?; did he get pleasure from abrading her skin with his stubble? Her only come-back, so cowed was she (despite having enjoyed a successful career in teaching), was the knobbly pillowcases. But if that’s the case, and it’s really a horror film rather than a slice-of-(middle-class)life, then the final ‘deeply moving’ (according to most critics) final scene, when Kate and Geoff dance to ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ and she realises that her marriage has been based on a lie, wouldn’t make sense.
Ismay’s verdict: mind-numbingly boring.
It did seem awfully long for 91 minutes, but both Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are eminently watchable, even if you’re puzzled as to what roles they really (think they) are playing. I remember my mum and I had a bit of a crush on Tom Courtenay in the late 60s (possibly after seeing Dr Zhivago, or was it after one of the Wednesday plays?); I think I still do. And Geraldine James was great, as always. She plays Kate’s friend Lena; Kate should have run off with her years earlier.

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