The Bitter Face of a Marriage

45 Years A Film by Andrew Haigh

In the same weekend, a friend e-mailed to tell me that 45 Years was a great film—he had just seen it with his wife to celebrate his 63rd birthday—and I heard another friend say, to someone who asked, “Don’t bother.  The whole damn thing is too depressing.”

I don’t think it’s great, though it raises some issues; my wife and I talked about it for days.  I agree that it’s depressing.  But it’s a work of art, about a possible—though unlikely—situation, and it’s about real people.  In a season with movies like The Revenant and The Hateful Eight, that’s nothing to sneeze at.

I suspect that Kung Fu Panda III is less of a cartoon than The Hateful Eight.

Geoff and Kate Mercer, who are about to celebrate their 45th Wedding Anniversary with a huge party (they missed their 40th because Goeff was having open-heart surgery) receive a piece of strange news: the body of the woman Goeff loved before he met Kate, and who died in a mountain climbing accident by slipping through a fissure in a rock, has just been discovered.  It is visible in a glacier.  Someone in Germany has contacted Geoff—who was listed as her next of kin, though he says they weren’t actually married—to let him know, apparently with the idea that he might want to see the body, though there’s no hope of recovering it.  This incident brings up not just the question of whether Geoff wants to do that, but the whole issue of what that relationship meant to him.

We learn all this in the first scene of the film—spoiler alert! (this whole piece is full of spoilers, though it’s hardly a plot-driven movie)—and accept it as the premise of the five days that will follow, which was an unusually active week for these oldsters.  Not only are they planning a big anniversary party, Geoff is getting together in the middle of the week for a reunion with some mates from work.  So it’s a big week for looking back, and now there’s a fly in the ointment.  Body in the glacier.  Whatever.

It was only afterwards that I thought how unlikely all this was.  Somebody in Switzerland remembered this incident that had happened fifty years before?  They were still alive?  Knew whose body it was?  Still had Geoff’s address?  We suspend our disbelief because this is the film’s premise[1], also because it stars two movie icons, Tom Courtenay (the lonely long distance runner himself) and Charlotte Rampling, certainly a candidate, forty years ago, for the most beautiful woman in all of films.  She had my vote.

The obvious question first: How do they look?  Tom looks frumpy, I have to say (age 78), a little paunchy.  It would help if he combed his hair occasionally, or shaved every fourth day.  Charlotte looks, as we say, remarkable for her age, but there is a sadness to her face, a downturn, I don’t know how to describe it, as if in regret that she’s lost her sparkling beauty.  Maybe I’m imagining that.  I wondered if it was an affect that she put on for the movie, but I don’t think so.  Lincoln famously said that, after the age of 40, we wear the face that we’ve earned, and Charlotte Rampling has earned a sad face.  It’s still beautiful, but it’s sad.

She’s two years older than I am, and I’d like to say, Hey.  It isn’t all that bad.

We see this couple react to their situation in painstaking detail.  Geoff at first seems lost in thoughts of what might have been.  That seems natural; the affair didn’t fizzle out but ended in the full flush of happiness.  He gets romantic with Kate, dances with her, tries to make love but loses his erection (I know it’s around here somewhere).  All that is painful and a little pathetic, not because they’re old, but because he seems so desperate, and sad.  Kate tries to console him, but there’s not much she can do.

The movie seems centered on Kate—when only one face is in focus, it’s hers—and the more painful thing is when she gets jealous.  Geoff is grieving, as my wife pointed out, needs to be allowed that.  There’s no threat to their marriage; we’re talking about a corpse in a glacier.  It’s unfortunate that the news came now, when they were planning to celebrate.  It’s also possible that Geoff told some lies about the way things were back then, but he was trying to start something new.  Does anyone really tell everything?

Geoff comes to his senses by the end of the week, which seems pretty rapid, considering.  He may have thought briefly about going to Switzerland, but it’s hard enough to climb out of a chair, much less climb a mountain.  He shaves!  He combs his hair!  He takes a walk with his wife, whereas on previous days he had had let her walk alone.  But she can’t let things drop, and that seems her problem, not his.  That sad face is hers.  It may also be Charlotte Rampling’s, but it’s Kate’s, and she’s earned it.

In the last scene, at the party, Kate and Geoff dance together to the most beautiful of all romantic ballads, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by the Platters.  Geoff and several others seem to be singing along, and that may be grounds for divorce, if not execution; nobody should try to match that voice.  At the end Kate pulls away from Geoff, and the image we’re left with is Charlotte Rampling’s bitter face.  I prefer to remember her another way.

But that bitterness had its start back then.  It had to.

[1] I’ve always said to writers, if you have an element in your story that is borderline unbelievable, put it at the beginning.  Make it a premise.