(This review is a revised version of an earlier review for Seattle Screen Scene.)
Like his 2011 feature, Weekend, Andrew Haigh, in his newest film, 45 Years, places us inside the circle of intimacy of one particular couple. Here, though, it examines a long-standing relationship, a marriage of 45 years, rather than a new one. This couple is established, rooted in an easy routine of closeness, rooted in a shared identity. That identity, however, as the film begins, is suddenly in question, and over the course of one week, Haigh examines the assumptions about identity and relationship through the lens of the small, private gestures of domesticity.
The film’s first shot is the shot of a house, downsized by the frame of the landscape but centered, a clear, if gentle, demand on the attention. It is a classic sort of house you might find in an English village, modest, but firm; it knows who and what it is without drawing undue attention to itself. It is, though, essentially a blank. It could be anyone’s home. But 45 Years makes the meaning of its first image over the course of the film in such a way that, when the image of the house – in the same framing – is repeated near the end, that meaning is, almost unbearably, full.
At the center of the house is one particular marriage, a thing representing an accumulation of days and of small interactions, and the house and the relationship reside at the center of the film, building significance from the inside out: an offered cup of tea, the antiphonal low humming of two voices, two bodies moving easily around one another in a cramped bathroom, quiet chats in bed that begin simply, without preface. This is what 45 years of married life together looks like, feels like, for Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and for Geoff (Tom Courtenay).
Even before the house image though, the film begins in blackness, with a sound that, though I don’t know it in that beginning moment, threatens the house and the relationship; it comes from something in the darkness of time before house became what it is. The sound is a repeating one, and it catches at my own memory bank of sounds, towards something that stretches back to childhood. So familiar, though I cannot initially place it. I realize, of a sudden, what it is, and have to laugh a bit to myself; does anyone under 40 know that sound? Whirr, click, pause, whirr, click, pause. A slide projector. It is a sound that reaches me out of the past from within the circle of a home, my home, my grandmother’s home.
I suppose slide projectors must have been used in more formal presentations in years past, perhaps in large conference rooms, where marketers, confident in their clicking images, urged a product on a group of suited men. But for me, a slide projector is a thing at the center of a family affair, a machine to cast images of ourselves and the impossibly youthful images of aging relatives upon a sheet, wobbily tacked up on a wall, while we gather around, parents, brothers, sisters, cousins, Uncle Jack, and Grandma Louise, jostling together to enjoy the story of ourselves, flicking scene by scene on the rumpled white surface. It’s a story that would bore an outsider. Sometimes, even my younger self would grow impatient at too many images of the old auntie I never met, while the adults traded stories about the last time they saw her. But even through impatience and boredom, it’s the sort of moment that made, for me, the security called “family,” a thing that happened only in our home, against the background of worn furniture and that green shag carpet I loved to hate.
The sound, then, is a domestic sound, should be a domestic sound. So its utter strangeness to this home, Kate and Geoff’s home – when that strangeness is revealed as such – particularly, pointedly unsettles the accumulation of domestic gestures, those gestures that belong so intimately to one couple. Within the realm of their closeness, an intruder is revealed, someone from Geoff’s past, a past that did not include Kate, whose “perfume,” Kate begins tosay, with startled realization, “has tainted everything.”
Kate and Geoff’s daily routine struggles to maintain itself under the pressure of this stranger, and the strain of the pressure plays out within the small interactions between the couple. They are interactions that, from a distance, seem a part of a daily routine, but situated as we are, inside the circle of the home, so intently watching Geoff’s face or Kate’s face, small differences are earthquakes. Geoff smoking a cigarette. Geoff’s note, “I’ve taken the bus to town. Sorry.” Kate’s choice to stay in bed rather than go for her morning walk. Geoff’s choice to go with Kate on her morning walk, rather than stay home. Kate smoking a cigarette. These little things, potentially, shatter. They deviate only ever so slightly from the quotidian norm, but a whole world shifts. Who Geoff is, who Kate is, and who they are to each other becomes a fragile thing.
A 45-year anniversary celebration for the couple closes out the film. It is a grand gesture, and for Kate and Geoff, from within their realm of small intimacies, it feels very grand indeed. They are not sure they should participate in such a thing at all. But they do, and its grandness brings all of its weight to bear on a newly brittle center. A week is a short time, but it is a long time to live with a home intruder, and the question of what of the marriage is after this long week, is the question to which the film inexorably leads.
The answer is the answer we might expect from the world Haigh has given us with Geoff and Kate: intimate, delicate, and complex. Were we outsiders to this world, we would miss it. Insiders though, we see it for what it is, a thing of dense, compacted import. Taking it in, I am, myself, in danger of breaking.
(An advance screening of 45 Years is playing at SIFF Cinema Uptown December 14. It opens in select theaters in Seattle and Bellingham January 2016.)