Reckoning with Loss in ‘45 Years’

Catherine Ellsberg ’16
Staff Writer

If I were to search for the literary equivalent of Andrew Haigh’s intensely poignant “45 Years,” I would most likely land on James Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” published in the 1914 collection “Dubliners.” In “The Dead,” Gretta Conroy famously admits to her husband, Gabriel, how she was once deeply in love with a boy who died tragically at the age of 17. As if struck by lightning, Gabriel begins to realize that “while he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another.” Indeed, “45 Years” echoes the hollow ring of nostalgia and regret in Joyce’s acclaimed story; at a crisp 95 minutes, the film almost takes on the condensed form of a novella.

“45 Years” stars British icons Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling (in an Oscar-nominated performance) as Geoff and Kate Mercer, a happily-married couple living in a comfortable cottage in the countryside. The film begins on a Monday, counting down the days until the couple’s 45th wedding anniversary party on Saturday; in between, we witness the disintegration of 45 happy years across a compressed timespan.

Within the first five minutes of the film, we are presented with a dilemma that will prove to have seismic consequences for both Geoff and Kate. Geoff, a retired factory manager, sits at his kitchen table reading a letter he has just received in German; stunned, he announces to his wife that the body of Katya has been discovered, frozen and preserved, in the Alps 50 years after her death. “You know who I’m talking about, don’t you?” Geoff asks Kate.

Katya, as it turns out, was Geoff’s first great love and, as we later learn, his fiancée. Kate, played by Rampling, remains at first, in stereotypical British fashion, cool and reserved. After all, this took place decades ago, long before the start of her relationship with Geoff. But day after day, Kate’s barely suppressed well of jealousy, suspicion and anxiety spills onto the surface as we witness Geoff succumbing to hopeless nostalgia. Rifling through old photos of Katya in the middle of the night – even occasionally slipping and calling her “my Katya” – Geoff becomes enamored once again with the memory of his lost love.

Katya’s body has been preserved all this time in ice; apparently, she looks the same as she did at age 27 in 1962. This detail adds to the bizarre chasm between the reality of Geoff’s current life (content with his loving wife, Kate) and the phantasm of this dead woman – of what could have been. As Geoff, Courtenay often trails off mid-sentence, fumbling for words. At times he shares everything going through his head with Kate, and in others, he becomes lost, as if stranded in his own foggy memory.

By the time Saturday arrives, the day of the great party, we have witnessed small cracks turn into fantastic fissures, threatening to eclipse the seemingly successful marriage. “She’s tainted everything,” Kate yells at one point. As Geoff grows increasingly distant, it is hard to argue with Kate; the specter of Katya remains, hovering over even the smallest moments.

Leading up to a devastating final shot, “45 Years” manages to encapsulate, in just over an hour and a half, the toll of unspoken longing. Haigh doesn’t tell us if Geoff and Kate will survive this hardship. Instead, as we finally focus on Kate’s face trembling with irreconcilable sadness, we recognize the consequences of secrecy, of the dull ache of suppressed yearning. We wish the best for this now-familiar couple, knowing full well that it might be too late; the damage has been done.

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