The plot of 45 Years is deceptively simple, while the emotional lives of the two main characters, Geoff and Kate Mercer — convincingly played in naturalistic style by Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling — are complex yet largely concealed.
The film is set in the Mercers’ pleasant semi-rural home in Norwich, England, where, on the eve of their 45th anniversary celebration, Geoff unexpectedly receives a letter informing him of the discovery of the body of his former lover, intact in a Swiss glacier. Kate is stunned to learn that Geoff had a lover back then, and time itself appears to freeze for both of them. Their relationship undergoes changes in the several days between the receipt of the letter and their anniversary party.
Emotions concealed and revealed
There are of course innumerable films about couples and their shifting feelings toward one another. This film echoes Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, a psychological portrayal of an elderly man and his daughter. Like that film, 45 Years examines the dark side of love and desire, but the dark side of Geoff and Kate is almost hermetically sealed, while in Bergman, it is openly exposed in dialogues, dreams, and images.
We know that Geoff is drawn back to his early love and that Kate, sensing this longing, is upset that her husband never told her about his past and may not have loved her all these years. Beyond that, we can only guess what Kate feels when she tries vainly to stir up romantic flames in her husband with social dancing and sex. Or when she rummages through the attic and finds slides from the hiking trip, in which she sees the former lover’s youthful beauty, and the fact that she is pregnant with his child. Or when, at the anniversary celebration, Geoff tearfully professes his abiding love for Kate, and she doesn’t quite buy it.
Existential ennui empathically understood
The film is thus about an elderly couple who have led an outwardly harmonious, though childless, marriage but, who, until the letter arrived, took each other’s inner lives for granted. Now they appear in a state of shock, but they don’t know whether to bury the past or delve into it — and, as they try to explore their feelings, seem unable to do so.
Courtenay and Rampling provide remarkable portrayals of two people whose inner privacy is expressed in subtle words and gestures that simultaneously express and conceal their feelings. Rampling, one of the most nuanced actors in the history of film, is full of latent emotions she suppresses and does not fully understand, while Courtenay tries to cover up whatever he may be going through while it is clear that his inner world has been turned upside down. They both make drama out of emptiness, being from nothingness. It is their conjoint theatrical accomplishment to make existential ennui come alive in two human beings for whom we can only have compassion.
A Rorschach test
45 Years is like a Rorschach inkblot onto which we can project many layers of meaning. We know that Geoff and Kate are stunned and puzzled, but much of what is going on inside each of them is left to our imagination.
On one level, it simply gives us a slice of life lived out in a short time span with a hook into the distant past. Along with the characters, we feel the flow of time from one day to the next, as if nothing has changed, while everything has changed. We see how routine is a source of security, while at the edge of consciousness we are aware of something critical that is missing from their lives.
At another level, it is about secrets, which we all bury in order to go on our accustomed ways — as T.S. Eliot wrote, “living, and partly living.”
Most obviously, the film is a study of how decent older people, having lived out the script of active lives, try to find current meaning in daily life and disturbing events. They realize that in some sense their lives are mere addenda to the narratives of youth and midlife. In this respect, their emptiness is an inevitable challenge brought about by the life cycle, a bell that tolls when evening approaches. The film’s frame of reference is, however, left up to us.
A Marxist analysis
I also perceived another level that I’m not sure was consciously intended by the filmmakers: a Marxist critique of the life of the bourgeoisie. Geoff personifies the bureaucratic white-collar worker. In one scene, he visits the manufacturing plant where he worked most of his life. He is trying to recapture something there of himself, but he comes back feeling unable to connect with it. Life in capitalism is about fulfilling work and business objectives, not so much for the authentic self.
Even the family dog, who strolls around the film like an extra, displays more feeling than his owners. When Kate climbs up to the attic, the dog panics and wails, as if aware of the hidden danger there. It reminds me of what the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas said about his stay in a detention camp during World War II: that the only one treating him and his fellow prisoners as human beings was a dog who greeted them when they returned from work at the end of the day.
45 Years asks whether our social life has come to this: frozen images of our own real selves buried in glacial fissures of how we think we ought to be.