The almost minimal and spiritual framework of cinema first described by the filmmaker Paul Schrader and assessed in the work of Robert Bresson, Carl T. Dreyer and Yasujirō Ozu is utilised in Andrew Haigh's 45 Years. Haigh's film sits surprisingly well amongst the quiet, melancholic visions of these filmmakers, using a minimal set of aesthetics and an absence of nondiegetic musical score to stunning effect. It also channels this style through the prism of a peculiarly British preoccupation: the sense of emotional turmoil being given an unfolding backdrop through subtle emphasis upon landscape.
The film concerns an older couple, Geoff (Tom Courtney) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling), living in the quiet idylls of the Norfolk broads. It is mere days until they celebrate their 45th anniversary together, their 40th having being scuppered by Geoff's health, but a time-bomb is about to explode in the form of a letter to Geoff from the Swiss mountains. The frozen and preserved body of Geoff's first true love, Katya, has been found in the ice sparking off a new set of revelations for the couple.
Their relationship begins to disintegrate at an alarming rate as they head closer to their anniversary party at the end of the week. The narrative as a set of parameters is a relatively simple one but the film hinges on the complexity of the emotional fallout as both lead characters are subsumed by the past; one being haunted by the possibilities of what could have been, the other by the paranoia that what has been their lives is unconsciously moulded in the aspect of the dead woman's image.
The most poignant part of Haigh's film is the unspoken clash of landscapes that appear to symbolise both of Geoff's relationships. Shooting on stunning 35mm Kodak stock to create a dampened hue of Anglian flatlands, 45 Years embraces the quiet roads of the couple's village showing it to be a plain where there is little chance of symbolic hiding. When Geoff begins to secretly revisit old photographs and slides in the loft, Kate discovers it almost instantly, perhaps being an underlying suspicion of hers for some time. Geoff might as well have been stood outdoors in his secret vigils of nostalgia, where the precipice of the vista fails to give out as it continues on in an endless, yellowy green broad.
The flat easiness of this landscape - the place where Geoff and Kate share their comfortable house together - is thrown into violent contrast with the Swiss mountains that took away his first love. The viewer is never shown this terrain except through brief glimpses of old photos and projected slides, but it is the descriptions and the way Geoff effuses about the dangerous rebellion of such a place that shifts the tectonics of their relationship. Kate realises quickly that she is the flat easy land, compared to the rugged excitement of the forever youthful Katya who haunts the pair like a ghost. The fact that she hasn't aged enhances Kate's paranoia as well as Geoff's own dissatisfaction of what time has done to his own body which can "barely get down to the village without needing a sit down on the bench" - a stark contrast to his youthful adventures up the Swiss mountainsides.
Within the film's running time, this sense of clashing landscapes builds rhythmically as Geoff's obsession grows. Kate, who is really the character from whose perspective the story is told, often takes their dog for walks along the lonely, tree lined roads of the spectral broads, even venturing into Norwich to sort out various logistics of their 45th anniversary celebration. In these solo journeys, it seems at first as if they are there to imply the absence of her partner; these aren't moments of solitude by choice but by necessity. It is only as the emotional fallout of the revelation asserts itself that the solitary walks seem more cathartic; walking in the European tradition as Robert Macfarlane describes it "for recovery rather than discovery."
The film leaves the couple bathed in a blue light as they take their first dance at the reception. The drama has boiled over and ruptured their lives in ambiguous quantities. As they dance to the song that was first played at their wedding, they are submerged in this cold blue light, away from the warmth of the historic Norwich venue that they are in. At first, it seems like just a simple events spot light, highlighting the couple romantically for the rest of the gathering to see. Yet, as the haunted narrative concludes and the memories of what has been said lingers uncomfortably on, the blue light no longer seems arbitrary but an icy delphinium; the couple now sharing that same, isolated stasis as the dead lover locked away deep under the glaciers of the alps.
45 Years is now showing at FACT. Book tickets here.