Saturday 10 March 2018

On TV: "45 Years"

In the Paul Auster-scripted 1995 film Smoke, William Hurt recounts an anecdote about a mountaineer who, while ascending the peak on which his father perished decades before, discovers the body preserved in the ice – the old man now younger than the son in outward appearance. It’s a potent aside: one that speaks to the way we measure ourselves against our predecessors, and to the different ways in which man and nature measure time. The corpse forms a physical manifestation of a distant memory, and the punchline to one of the chilliest and most unsettling of modern ghost stories.

45 Years – Weekend writer-director Andrew Haigh’s adaptation of David Constantine’s short story In Another Country – begins with a similar discovery. A week before he’s due to celebrate the anniversary of the title with wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling), Geoff (Tom Courtenay) learns his previous girlfriend’s body has been found, after a half-century, in a glacier in the Swiss Alps. Kate, recoiling at her husband’s tendency to refer to the deceased, with detectable wistfulness, as “my Katya”, becomes increasingly perturbed by Geoff’s reaction – at first distracted, then consumed by unprocessed emotions. For her own part, everything from a snatch of Gary Puckett on the radio to a recorded history of the nearby Norfolk Broads will serve as a too-painful reminder of what’s been excavated, and her own place in this landscape.

The attention to detail throughout is exquisite. As in Weekend, whose lovers had merely to figure out whether to stay or go, Haigh puts us right in the middle of a tricky, complex moment for his characters: the flat calm of the Norfolk countryside provides a graph of their relationship up to this point, and an isolation entirely appropriate to a very English ghost story. (For Rebecca, read Katya.) Time and again, the camera begins at some remove, only to nudge us closer to the leads, whom we find operating in such a low-key, naturalistic mode that every flinch and twinge registers with the force of a controlled explosion, and every lingering, half-finished sentence (a single “still…” from Rampling, say) serves as a declaration of hostilities.

It’s crucial that Haigh casts Courtenay, one of British cinema’s beautiful dreamers, as Geoff – but this filmmaker is even more sympathetic towards the woman trying to get inside his head. (Almost literally so: the use of the couple’s attic space is an act of cinematic trepanning as inspired as anything in Inside Out.) Rampling, oft cast as arch, has rarely seemed more alive than she is here: more practical and active than her partner, as women in long-term relationships often are, and trying to snap her somnolent hubby, lost in dreams of what might have been, back into the present.

Unlike many films in the recent Silver Screen revolution, Haigh gives Kate and Geoff histories and softspots. We discover their musical and political leanings, and where they go in the middle of the day; their unforced intimacies trump all the innuendo at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. These are flesh-and-blood human beings, not flimsy avatars for the target audience: Haigh crafts a fully-dimensional relationship in order to show exactly what’s under threat, and every subsequent scene of quiet, careful observation further raises the stakes: an hour in, you’re aware how much this pair have to lose, and you’re gripped.

In doing so, Haigh – who’s been away in America of late, overseeing the HBO series Looking – reasserts himself as a major British director: if the talkiness doesn’t sound obviously cinematic, he finds, with his performers, remarkably compelling ways of approaching and shaping it. Here is some astonishing acting, the kind of deep-frozen emotion that has sustained many of the great British features, a scenario that still, after all these years, haunts the imagination, and an ending that should keep couples of every vintage talking until their heads hit the pillow. Awards have been handed out for far less.

(MovieMail, August 2015)

45 Years screens on Channel 4 tonight at 9pm.

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