Saturday, January 2, 2016

45 Years: Of ghosts, gone but not forgotten

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling star in writer-director Andrew Haigh's superb marital drama 45 Years.

“They asked me how I knew my true love was true
I of course replied something here inside cannot be denied

They said someday you’ll find all who love are blind
When your heart’s on fire, you must realize smoke gets in your eyes

So I chaffed them and I gaily laughed to think they could doubt our love
Yet today my love has flown away; I am without my love

Now laughing friends deride tears I cannot hide
So I smile and say, when a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes”

– “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” lyrics by Otto Harbach

People make honesty trickier than it needs to be in most cases. Though it may not seem so initially, the easiest path is always the path of truth and openness, and the long-term ramifications of a lie will inevitably dwarf the short-term pain of the truth. The longer a lie sits, the more it festers, and the worse it will be when its falsehood is brought to the light of day, and rest assured, it always finds the light of day.

We form most of our relationships based on these principles, in particular our romantic ones. Marriage may not mean much as an institution, but at its most basic, it is an agreement to communicate honestly and share openly. The couple at the center of writer-director Andrew Haigh’s magnificent 45 Years has failed this test, and in one letter they probably never thought would arrive, the weight of 45 years of deceit is brought to bear.

Haigh and Rampling talk 45 Years. (photo credit: Julie Cunnah)
Earlier last month, Haigh and the film’s star, Charlotte Rampling, came to the Lincoln Center in New York City to screen the movie and stayed after for an intelligent, evocative chat about lies, liars, and the demons they bring to life. Rampling especially was witty, charming, and unafraid to discuss the depths to which she went to portray a character whose world is shattered by a long-forgotten, thought-buried trauma.

“In a film like this, you really need to evolve very subtly, and you don’t know what level of subtlety you’re looking for until you start to play a character,” said Rampling. “In the situation with [co-star Tom Courtenay], we didn’t know how far it was going to go, where it was going to go. We were really exploring. Although obviously, there is a script, but within that script and within sequences and within the dialogue, we’re always feeling our way. … Day by day, we’re living that story.”

Rampling and Courtenay are legends of European cinema with a combined 110 years of onscreen experience and more than 160 credits between them. Though they had never worked together before this, they were part of the same movement in European cinema that led filmmakers to tell more personal stories about the everyday lives of working-class people. In a very real way, that legacy of honest, emotionally grounded storytelling continues with 45 Years.

They play Kate and Geoff, who are a week away from celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary when Geoff receives a letter in the mail. The body of his long-dead first love, Katia, has been discovered. She died in a hiking accident in the Alps some months before Geoff met Kate, and her body has been perfectly preserved in a glacier at the exact moment of her death – a fitting symbol for the memory of a long-ago love who has never aged and never changed.

The news understandably brings up a lot of feelings in Geoff, feelings Kate thought he had discarded when they met. They have spent 45 mostly happy years together, but Geoff’s reminiscences cause Kate to question whether she is and always has been his second choice. Haigh’s slow-burn narrative puts the audience fully in Kate’s headspace as we walk with her through each of seven days leading up to the couple’s anniversary party. The strain this news puts on their relationship becomes suffocating to the point where the film no longer plays like a traditional marital drama but like a thriller.

Courtenay and Rampling in 45 Years.
This building tension informs the way Haigh chooses to shoot most of the scenes, filming long, unbroken takes of the couple interacting. Sometimes they speak, and sometimes they are silent, but there is always a conversation taking place, an exchange of ideas and emotions. Courtenay and Rampling are brilliant at using these extended sequences to create fully realized characters and a totally lived-in relationship.

“From the very early stages, I knew that I wanted it to be shot in long takes and lots of essentially two-shots,” said Haigh. “For me, it’s very interesting to see, especially in a film about relationships, to see two people who are quite intent on having that relationship, to see the dynamics of that relationship unfold in real time rather than have the emotion created by the cuts. I want to see the awkwardness of that emotion sometimes happen in front of my eyes, and I think if you start cutting too much, you’re creating the emotions with the cuts within scenes. I just love what it does to performance and what that means about performance. … It just feels more truthful to me.”

While Geoff becomes obsessed with a fleeting moment in time from his past and gives himself over simultaneously to reverie and regret, Kate begins to question the very foundations of not just her marriage but her life. Faced now with the reality of a husband who may never have given up the ghost of his former love, she wonders how much that specter has loomed over her relationship and the choices she and Geoff have made.

“We all have these alternative versions of our lives that play out in numerous different ways, and I think that’s almost the hardest thing for Kate to deal with,” said Haigh. “It’s like somebody shining a very intense light on her life and what’s happened to her life, and one of the interesting things to me about those kind of conversations is when he says that he would have married [Katia] … What would have happened to Kate? What would have happened to her life? She’d have met someone else, been living somewhere else, doing something else. Those kind of issues, if I think about them, they make me have a mental breakdown. The weight of choice and the weight of our decisions and coincidence and randomness can be very heavy on people.”

That weight only grows as the film progresses and Kate and Geoff become even further enmeshed in their feelings about the past, their lives together, and the lives they could have led separately. Rampling and Courtenay quietly deliver two of the best acting performances of the year individually, but when they are together onscreen, it is like the rest of the world stops. For better or worse, in those moments, it is just Geoff and Kate and nearly five decades of betrayal, and the actors come together to make the audience feel every ounce of their shared pain.

It is of course no easy feat to portray the kind of intimate, dynamic relationship shared by Geoff and Kate, but Rampling and Courtenay absolutely dig into their characters’ psyches to unearth all the fears, jealousies, and doubts that have kept them rooted to this place. Neither performance works without the other, and Rampling and Courtenay have an almost effortless onscreen chemistry, which Rampling attributed to their shared life experiences.

“You are what you are anyway, and then you come to a role, and that role needs you to bring your own past in, but that’s actually the most natural thing you can do,” said Rampling. “An instant rapport is created with the person if he also is the same age as you, more or less, and also did the same things. Although we didn’t actually know each other, it didn’t matter we didn’t know each other. We were actually involved in the same world, so that made a big difference. I think also the choice … when Andrew decided that it would be Tom, it was very much that. There’s already a kind of something familiar between the two of us, something almost like as if we come from the same place.”

Rampling and Courtenay in 45 Years.
From an audience perspective, the love the characters clearly shared and still share, aided by the obvious chemistry between the two leads, makes the devastation of their situation nearly impossible to bear. We are bystanders, watching as a couple whose foundation seemed solid disintegrates in front of us because Geoff could not bring himself to be honest with Kate from the beginning. Perhaps he has not even been able to be honest with himself until the letter arrives.

“What’s interesting to me is that they do love each other, and they always have loved each other, but that doesn’t mean that’s still not fragile,” said Haigh. “It doesn’t take that much to start throwing people off balance, and that’s how I see it. I think it is emotional infidelity. I think it’s a lack of honesty, like your understanding of your relationship has just shifted, has changed, and you can’t get back to what it was.”

It ruins nothing to say there is no blow-up argument, no final confrontation, nor even a real resolution, and there never could be. That is not who these people are, Kate in particular. She would rather, were it possible, move on, start over, do anything they can to put the past back in the past, but the past is one thing. Truth is another, and truth, once known, can never be unknown.

Finally, it is up to Kate to decide how she can move on now that the fundamental relationship in her life, the thing that has defined her entire adulthood, has been forever altered. How, indeed, when her husband is so consumed by a past frozen in ice that he cannot see the present and future have gone up in flames? Perhaps they will be able to put out this fire, but the smoke will linger, and hiding therein will be the ghost of which they dare not speak.

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