Tuesday, 26 January 2016

45 Years

You see a work differently when you do some writing yourself. The choices you made- how to tell the story, how to structure the plot, whose perspective should be the focus, what to show and what to hide, what to keep and what to omit... help you notice and make you think about the choices the author made that otherwise you might have paid no attention to.
Yesterday evening I watched 45 Years. The plot is simple: it's almost a week of Mr and Mrs Mercer before their 45th wedding anniversary on Saturday (the structure: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,..., Saturday). On Monday, at the start of the film, the husband receives a letter in German informing that people have found the perfectly preserved body of his ex-girlfriend Katya, who 50 years earlier slipped into an Alpine crevasse (right before him). 45 Years isn't about the anniversary party alone. It isn't about Katya and her death or the love story between her and the husband, Geoff, before the future Mrs Mercer, Kate, comes along. It isn't about Geoff and how he deals with the news and comes to terms with it, how he immerses himself in memories with all the pains and regrets and what-ifs. 45 Years is about Kate- how she's affected by the news and its effect on her husband, how she deals with that past of her husband of which she wasn't a part, how she's bothered and then pained by his reawakened grief and something like an attempt to get Katya back, how she ponders over hypothetical questions, how she tries to come to terms with some newfound knowledge that seems to tear her world apart, how she all of a sudden sees her whole marriage differently whilst arranging on her own the wedding anniversary that she herself isn't certain they should have.
I watched 45 Years and thought about Andrew Haigh's artistic choices. The photos of the friend Lena's grandchild that she shows the couple, whilst Geoff is distracted with thoughts about climate change and the Alps and the accident and Kate is also distracted with concern for him but looks out of politeness, aren't shown; the photo of Katya that Geoff looks for in the middle of the night and Kate demands to see isn't shown; what we have instead are Charlotte Rampling's and Tom Courtenay's faces. Geoff's visit to the travel agency isn't shown; instead, we see Kate go there to ask and discover that he has come to inquire about Switzerland, and see her reaction. Geoff's meeting with long-time friends, of which he wanted to back out but couldn't, isn't shown; instead, we see Kate pick him up afterwards and him whine about it. Haigh omits all that can be redundant, unnecessary. And he goes further. Many details are withheld, the characters' motives and emotions aren't verbalised- why the Mercers have no children isn't explained, whether Katya dies pregnant or what happens to the foetus/ baby if that's not the case isn't stated, how Kate really feels about the discovery isn't expressed; all we have is what we can see on the screen. He even lets Kate imply but not talk about what she has known, and we thus can never know how Geoff might respond to what she eventually leaves unsaid.
The most interesting decision is perhaps not to show any flashback. None whatsoever. We never see the young Geoff with Katya. We never see Katya's last day and the accident. What Andrew Haigh does is to let Geoff tell it to Kate. The camera turns from the husband telling the story, to the wife hearing it. This is usually a "crime" in films- the language of cinema is image, and what can be shown with images shouldn't be told in words. By not showing the accident, Haigh seems to choose an easy way, at the cost of not conveying the awfulness of the memory, thus reducing its nightmarish, haunting impact and not depicting to the full extent Geoff's pain. The reasoning isn't hard to grasp- from the beginning to the end, 45 Years focuses on Kate. It begins with her, and ends with her. But Haigh's decision has an effect- as we the audience hear the story from old Geoff, as we can't see it and are kept distanced from it, as we know only what Kate knows, that puts us in Kate's position and brings us closer to her, as though we wonder the same things, ask the same questions, have the same doubts. That is interesting. And it makes us realise the painful truth that the happiest and most stable of couples are made up of 2 persons that are essentially alone, and strangers to each other.
Come to think of it, it's not an easy way that Haigh has chosen. The focus now is on emotions and reactions, the weight is now on the actor and actress (and Haigh's casting and directing). Like Marion Cotillard in De rouille et d'os or Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter, Charlotte Rampling has a subtle performance, and says so much more with her face than many actresses could with words. Without her and Tom Courtenay, 45 Years wouldn't be such a beautiful and moving film. As it is. 


  1. I appreciate your thoughtful and thorough review/recommendation; I am of an age that makes the film most relevant, and I will try to view the film in the near future. Thanks!

    1. You should check it out. I'd like to hear your thoughts on it.

  2. Won't you show us some? Your writing, I mean.