45 Years is set in present-day Norfolk. Kate and Geoff Mercer are a childless retired couple living in the countryside near Norwich. He used to be a middle-manager in a local (agri?)business, she was a teacher. They are at first sight, and to judge from their home and choice of car (a Skoda Octavia estate), sensible, modestly well-off and a little dull. Geoff (Tom Courtenay, born 1937) is in his late 70s, not good for his age, “decrepit” he says; Kate (Charlotte Rampling, born 1946) is younger, and good for hers. They don’t seem a terribly well-matched couple, perhaps he’s not the man he was. At the end of the coming week they intend to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary (Geoff was ill for their 40th) with friends in Norwich’s Assembly House, famous for its Trafalgar Grand Ball of 1805. But the postman brings a letter from Switzerland which leaves them, to use a French word, bouleversés – bowled over.
50 years previously Geoff had been in the Swiss mountains with his German girlfriend Katya. There was an accident, her body couldn’t be retrieved. But recently a glacier has melted, the body has been discovered, and, since the Swiss records indicate that he was the next-of-kin, Geoff is being notified of its reappearance, unchanged by the passage of time. Not surprisingly, this reawakens memories of those “heedless” days with his first love. Sleepless, he starts rooting about in the loft (attic, grenier) and comes down with Katya’s photograph. The more Kate sees of Geoff’s upset state of mind, the unhappier she becomes - not that Norfolk in mid-winter, of which we see plenty - and the Skoda - would be that cheerful at the best of times. Eventually climbing up to the loft herself, she is disturbed by the contents of a scrapbook and some photographic slides from 50 years ago. The couple make it to the party having pulled themselves together – but for how long?
Haigh’s previous films were about a year in the life of a London rent boy (Greek Pete) and a gay lost weekend in Nottingham (Weekend), markedly different milieux from that of a long-married couple in Norfolk. But the relationship was convincingly portrayed. Rampling is excellent at wifely stoicism which, borne too long, explodes. Courtenay’s Geoff comes across as a man who is a bit of a bumbler, probably didn’t deserve to be put through this trauma but eventually seems to be coping with it - his speech at the party is particularly well done.
My objections to 45 Years lie with its mechanics – I have admitted in a previous post to being disqualified as a critic, being prone to “objecting on the grounds of probability”. Mindful of this shortcoming I can discount some minor problems: why would the Swiss authorities have accepted Geoff as the next-of-kin of Katya, to whom he wasn’t married, whatever tale they had concocted to satisfy hoteliers on their travels – did she have no relatives in Germany? Surely it was just too convenient that the slide projector should still be in working order and with the right carousel of slides in place - perhaps it was Geoff, a man who had replaced his Katya with a Kate and has a German shepherd dog. Enough! My real problem with 45 Years is that when relating a search for lost times, the time-scales matter. The Mercers seem oddly out of their present. They don’t have mobile phones or computers, and there is talk of booking flights from Stansted using a travel agent. The explanation for these anachronisms may well lie in the origins of the film, described by Joe Shute in the Sunday Telegraph. 45 Years is based on a short story by David Constantine, In Another Country, published in 2001:
Holidaying in France some 15 years ago, Constantine heard of the discovery of a twenty-something mountaineer who had fallen down a glacial crevasse in Chamonix in the 1930s. Seventy years on, the retreating ice released its hold on the guide’s body, which the son he had fathered before his death was taken to identify. The shocking sight of his father - perfectly preserved in his prime, while he himself approached his eighties - tipped the son towards insanity. … 45 Years’ fleshed-out plot stays faithful to Constantine’s fictional interpretation of these real-life eventsand perhaps made a problem for itself in so doing. At the party, the Mercers dance their way all through Smoke Gets in Your Eyes with its redolent lyric:
They asked me how I knew, My true love was true
… And yet today, my love has gone away, I am without my loveHowever the best-known version of this song is by the Platters and it peaked in 1959. Ten years later, the time of their wedding in the film, as opposed presumably to the short story, Geoff, Kate and their friends would have been jigging around to the Beatles or the Rolling Stones:
Because I used to love her but it's all over nowwhich would hardly have been appropriate. 45 Years is 10 to 15 years too late – it should have been made a decade ago or, if made now, set then. Still, it brings two of Noël Coward’s best-known lines to mind: “Very flat, Norfolk” and “Strange how potent cheap music is”.