In our early 20s, my group of women friends (not so long ago having taken Philosophy 101) jokingly likened our dates to Kierkegaard’s aesthetic man–boys who didn’t want to limit their options, narrow their horizons, choose. But Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay), of a different generation, was capable and made a choice (decades before writer/director Andrew Haigh’s staggering and beautiful “45 Years” begins), and quite a successful one at that, when he married Kate (Charlotte Rampling).
But five years after heart bypass surgery, a few days before they’re to have a grand 45th anniversary celebration, he’s plunged into regret and a near-crazy yearning for his youth and all of his unmade choices. He receives a letter in German informing him that the preserved body of his first love, Katya, who had perished during their walking holiday 5o years earlier, falling into a fissure in a Swiss mountain glacier (he pronounces it glace e er), has been found. Climate change is melting the ice, reshaping the physical, and here, the emotional landscape. And Geoff soon finds himself on the sofa opening a volume by Kierkegaard–a book that Kate, who knows all his details and deeds, says he’d never been able to read past chapter 2.
The film, based on the short story “In Another Country,” by David Constantine, opens with a black screen, white titles and the clicking sound of a slide projector changing images. In the five days leading up to their Saturday night party, the image Kate has of her husband and their long and happy marriage, undergoes fearsome changes.
Although initially, Geoff, letter in hand, refers to his old girlfriend as “my Katya,” he quickly reassures Kate, “It’s been a bit of a shock, but I’m fine.” But as the week progresses, Geoff obsesses on Katya, how his life was, how it could have been and expresses deep dissatisfaction with things that are unchangeable, like getting older. After a lunch with friends he had worked with before retiring, he tells Kate, “All the lads have descended into old age..and it wasn’t pretty.” Kate calmly says he “gets over passionate about things” but as he withdraws from her, she’s swallowed up by jealousy, shoved toward the impossibility of competing with a “nonexistent 27-year-old.” Usually emotionally contained, she’s angry that her long union seems to be suddenly faltering.
Kate and Geoff, as embodied by these two great and iconic actors, are vital and engaged with life. But unable to regain his emotional footing after receiving the news of Katya, Geoff gives a rambling speech at their party. Unsettling Kate and their guests, he says, “As we get older, we stop making choices…the choices we make when we’re young are pretty bloody inept.” And both “their song,” by the Platters, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” chosen for their wedding and repeated at this party, and The Moody Blues’ “Go Now” underscore the precariousness of this marriage. The stunning last shot, a close-up of Kate’s beautiful face, is perhaps the most wrenchingly emotional in all of this year’s films.
“45 Years” will open on Wednesday, December 23 at the IFC Center and select theaters. As part of the “Weekend Classics” program, eight films celebrating the career of the incomparable Charlotte Rampling, will run at the IFC Center from January 8 through March 6. Included are “Georgy Girl” (1966), which brought Rampling international attention, Liliana Cavani’s controversial “The Night Porter” (1974) and “Under the Sand” (2000), Francois Ozon’s moving story of a wife’s denial and profound grief.