An Icy Chill From The Past Threatens A Steady Flame In '45 Years'

Dec 23, 2015
Originally published on January 4, 2016 12:58 pm

A short story about a long marriage — "In Another Country" by David Constantine — provided source-material for Andrew Haigh's breathtaking marital drama, 45 Years, but it's been enhanced and sharpened in its transition to the screen. What was once a story that harked back to WWII, and was loosely based on a real incident, has become a devastatingly intimate tale about a couple unsettled late-in-life, by an unexpected revelation.

Kate and Geoff Mercer (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) are living out their twilight years in Norfolk, one of the flattest spots in Britain. Nary a bump in the landscape, and from the couple's ease with each other, it seems their marriage is also smooth.

Kate's planning a 45th anniversary party, and wonders as she brings in the mail, whether "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" is the right song to play. It was the first song they danced to at their wedding. Too on the money? The question gets her a kiss.

Then Geoff opens the envelope she's just handed him, and his brow creases.

In a melting glacier in the Alps, Swiss authorities have spotted the perfectly preserved body of a young woman. They suspect it's Katya, the girlfriend Geoff was hiking with 50 years ago, when she fell into a crevasse. When Geoff puzzles out the rest of the letter (his German is rusty), it seems they want him to identify the body because he's listed as her next-of-kin. Kate is thunderstruck.

Why, his wife wonders, did they think she was his next-of-kin? She knew his girlfriend had died, but not that they'd pretended to be married. And if it was innocent, why didn't her husband simply tell her?

Pressed, Geoff replies that it's not the sort of thing one tells one's "beautiful new girlfriend." And she allows how she can't really be cross about something that happened before they met. "Still ..." she says.

And in that single syllable — "still" — lie the seeds of marital catastrophe. Writer and director Haigh is examining a marriage disrupted by what hasn't been said, what won't be said. So it's in Tom Courtenay's halting stammer that you hear Geoff struggling to give his wife reassurance he's not sure he feels himself, and in Charlotte Rampling's eyes that you see Kate's dawning realization of what she (as a beautiful, devoted wife, at 70) is up against: Not just memories of a woman with whom she very nearly shares a name — Katya/Kate — but that woman's youth kept literally on ice for five decades.

Kate thinks back on 45 years of marriage, suddenly second-guessing every choice she and Geoff have made. That song for their anniversary party, with lyrics about "tears I cannot hide"? What were they thinking? Still ...

They push through to the party. Geoff does his damnedest. Kate holds on for dear life. And the director holds too, on a sustained shot of the teamwork that's gotten these two through 45 years, and that may also mark the moment — in the lyrics of that song they're still dancing to — "when a lovely flame dies."

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Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

A short story about a long marriage was source material for the new film "45 Years." It stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. They are a happily married couple unsettled late in life by an unexpected revelation. Critic Bob Mondello says the film itself is a revelation.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Kate and Geoff Mercer are living out their twilight years in Norfolk, one of the flattest spots in England - nary a bump in the landscape and from the couple's ease, it seems their marriage is also smooth. Kate's planning a 45th anniversary party and wonders, as she brings in the mail, whether "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" is the right song to play.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "45 YEARS")

CHARLOTTE RAMPLING: (As Kate Mercer) What do you think of that Platters song?

TOM COURTENAY: (As Geoff Mercer) What for?

RAMPLING: (As Kate Mercer) First dance? Or do you think it's a bit (unintelligible) to have the same song that we had at our wedding?

COURTENAY: (As Geoff Mercer) No, lovely song. I've always liked it.

MONDELLO: He opens the envelope she's just handed him, and his brow creases.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "45 YEARS")

RAMPLING: (As Kate Mercer) What is it?

COURTENAY: (As Geoff Mercer) A letter.

RAMPLING: (As Kate Mercer) Yes, I know but who from? It's in German.

COURTENAY: (As Geoff Mercer) Yeah.

RAMPLING: (As Kate Mercer) What's it say?

COURTENAY: (As Geoff Mercer) Well, I can't remember the verbs as well as the nouns. But I think it says they found her.

RAMPLING: (As Kate Mercer) Found who?

COURTENAY: (As Geoff Mercer) Her body, anyway.

RAMPLING: (As Kate Mercer) God, who? Geoff?

COURTENAY: (As Geoff Mercer) They found Katia (ph).

RAMPLING: (As Kate Mercer) Oh.

MONDELLO: In a melting glacier in the Alps, Swiss authorities have spotted the perfectly preserved body of a young woman. They suspect it's the girlfriend Geoff was hiking with 50 years ago when she fell into a crevasse. They want him to identify the body because he's listed as her next of kin. Kate is thunderstruck.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "45 YEARS")

COURTENAY: (As Geoff Mercer) I'm sure I told you this before, Kate.

RAMPLING: (As Kate Mercer) Well, I think I would remember my husband being another woman's next of kin. Why?

COURTENAY: (As Geoff Mercer) Why what?

RAMPLING: (As Kate Mercer) Well, why were you her next of kin?

COURTENAY: (As Geoff Mercer) Because they thought we were married.

RAMPLING: (As Kate Mercer) What made them think that?

COURTENAY: (As Geoff Mercer) We told them we were.

RAMPLING: (As Kate Mercer) You weren't though?

COURTENAY: (As Geoff Mercer) Oh, no, no, no, no. Hell no. We just had to pretend so that people would let us stay in their houses - different in those days, Kate. And then after the accident...

RAMPLING: (As Kate Mercer) You could have just told me, Geoff.

COURTENAY: (As Geoff Mercer) It's hardly the sort of thing you tell your beautiful new girlfriend, is it?

RAMPLING: (As Kate Mercer) I suppose not. I've got lots to do tomorrow.

COURTENAY: (As Geoff Mercer) Are you sure you're all right?

RAMPLING: (As Kate Mercer) Yes, I mean, I can hardly be cross with something that happened before we existed, can I?

COURTENAY: (As Geoff Mercer) Sorry, honey.

RAMPLING: (As Kate Mercer) Still.

MONDELLO: And in that single syllable, still, lie the seeds of marital catastrophe. Writer-director Andrew Haigh is examining a marriage disrupted by what hasn't been said, what won't be said. So it's in Tom Courtenay's halting stammer that you hear Geoff struggling to give his wife reassurance he's not sure he feels himself and in Charlotte Rampling's eyes that you see Kate's dawning realization of what she, as a beautiful, devoted wife at 70, is up against - not just memories of a woman with whom she very nearly shares a name - Katia, Kate - but that woman's youth kept on ice for five decades. Kate thinks back on 45 years of marriage, suddenly second-guessing every choice she and Geoff have made. That song for their anniversary party with lyrics about tears I cannot hide - what were they thinking? Still, they push through to the party. Geoff does his damnedest. Kate holds on for dear life. And the director holds, too, on a sustained shot of the teamwork that's gotten these two through 45 years and that may also mark the moment when a lovely flame dies. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.