Andrew Haigh (2015)
The starting point of 45 Years and of David Constantine’s short story In Another Country, on which the film is based, is the arrival of a letter that contains surprising news. The kernel of Andrew Haigh’s film and that of the short story are also the same: the letter overwhelms the elderly man who receives it; the sudden resurrection of his distant past and the effect this has on him make his wife question whether the Mercers’ long married life has been a sham. In Another Country evidently takes its name from lines in Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (also used by T S Eliot as the epigraph for ‘Portrait of a Lady’ in Prufrock and Other Observations):
‘Thou hast committed –
Fornication: but that was in another country,
And besides, the wench is dead.’
Before the Mercers met, he had a German girlfriend called Katya; during a walking holiday with him in the Swiss Alps, Katya slipped, fell and disappeared into a mountain crevasse. The letter that now arrives from Switzerland explains that her body has been found, perfectly preserved after decades in the ice. The Swiss authorities have Mercer’s name as Katya’s next of kin. On their travels together, he and Katya pretended to be man and wife.
In Another Country, in my copy of David Constantine’s short story collection Under the Dam, is little more than eleven pages long. Andrew Haigh has reasonably decided this isn’t enough to make a feature-length screen drama. His screenplay, while retaining the powerful symbolic core of Constantine’s story, also includes various changes to it – including some important ones. The Mercers of In Another Country live in a small home on a housing estate somewhere in Wales; their house is closely overlooked by neighbouring houses occupied by other senior citizens. In 45 Years, the couple live in a more spacious and isolated property in rural Norfolk. We never find out what either of the story’s protagonists did for a living. In the film, the wife is a retired teacher; her husband had a middle-management job with a local engineering company, having worked his way up from the shop floor. (He is fiercely left-wing; we get the impression that his wife shares his political sympathies although she doesn’t express them strongly.) Constantine’s couple are referred to as Mr and Mrs Mercer, except when the husband writes a note to his wife, beginning ‘Dear Kate’. She is Kate in the film too; he is Geoff. In 45 Years, the ill-fated Alpine holiday took place in 1962; in the story, it happened just before or during World War II (and sixty years have elapsed since Katya’s disappearance). The timeframe of In Another Country is a week; the action of the film begins on a Monday and ends the following Saturday evening. That evening represents the largest change that Andrew Haigh has made to the source material: it will be the occasion of a party to celebrate the Mercers’ forty-fifth wedding anniversary – their plans for a fortieth celebration were shelved when Geoff had to have heart surgery. Preparations for the party five years on are a continuing element of the film’s narrative.
Some of Haigh’s additions work well. The Mercers have no children but in the film they have an Alsatian, the latest in a succession of dogs of the same breed they’ve owned. In an interview with Nick James in the September 2015 Sight & Sound, Haigh explains this invention as follows:
‘I did think about [the dog] a little bit as a child substitute. I also like the fact that it’s an Alsatian, and [Geoff] might’ve chosen it, so it’s got German heritage. It’s far too subtle, but I like to get those little things in there.’
The dog’s Teutonic associations are not that subtle but they’re dramatically effective: once Kate begins to think she’s never been more than a substitute for the (similarly-named) love of Geoff’s life, it’s especially hurtful that the animals which, in the absence of children, have been shared objects of affection throughout the Mercers’ marriage, prove to be an example of Geoff’s attempts to keep Katya alive. Bringing the pivotal years of the couple’s romantic past forward from the 1940s also makes sense, in relation to the casting of Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling: the 1960s were when they were youngsters (albeit he’s nine years older than her) and there will be many in the film’s audience who can easily bring to mind how they looked then. I was less convinced by some other aspects of Haigh’s adjustments and expansions – the implications of which aren’t fully worked through.
Haigh tells Nick James that it was important to him that Kate and Geoff should be younger than their counterparts in the short story, whom Haigh judges to be ‘in their late eighties’. (This may be slightly overstating it but they must at least be around eighty.) There are consequences, however, of making the Mercers younger and – particularly in the case of Kate – more physically and socially active, more mentally alert and dynamic. Her circumstances reduce the sense that David Constantine gives us of people living in each other’s pockets, except for a very few solo activities within a highly circumscribed routine. (In the short story, Mrs Mercer has her club on a Tuesday afternoon; Mr Mercer changes their library books on a Wednesday morning.) In the film, Kate appears to belong to a club whose members are elderly women. A sequence in which they go on a boat trip on the Norfolk Broads is memorable for Kate’s apprehension, as she stands on the boat looking out at the countryside (‘Very flat, Norfolk’ …), of what the reappearance of Katya, in a very different landscape, is beginning to mean. Yet Kate and her friend Lena, who accompanies her on the trip, seem a generation younger than the other women on the boat. In her late sixties, Charlotte Rampling is as slender and elegant as ever; Lena is played by Geraldine James, who’s four years Rampling’s junior. They’re incongruous among the other passengers – my initial (mistaken) impression was that Kate and Lena were on the trip to supervise the geriatrics. One of the many strengths of Rampling’s portrait of Kate is how convincingly she embodies and expresses, even when Kate is being perfectly amiable, the permeative bossiness of the experienced schoolteacher. Her self-possession makes the bouleversement of her life all the more wrenching to watch but it also undermines the credibility, in purely realistic terms, of her response to Geoff’s reaction to the news about Katya.
In David Constantine’s story, Mrs Mercer is immediately concerned by how her husband has taken the letter from Switzerland but we’re not sure why she is concerned – besides, it’s a Tuesday: ‘Can’t sit here all day. I’ve got my club’. Constantine conveys, economically and incisively, that Mrs Mercer is anxious to escape from the ‘little room’, into which there had come ‘a rush of ghosts’ and that she also has a good practical reason for going out. It’s perfectly credible that it’s only when she returns that evening – having had more time, during the club’s trip to Prestatyn, to think about the letter – that Mrs Mercer says, ‘I’ve been wondering … Why did they write to you about that girl?’ Although Haigh maintains something of this in having Kate, after her and Geoff’s first conversation about the letter, drive into town to discuss preparations for the anniversary party, it’s much less believable that this clear-thinking, authoritative woman wouldn’t immediately ask why the letter has been sent to her husband. This anticipates a more persistent improbability in Haigh’s story – a result of introducing the anniversary party as the dramatic spine of the piece. Kate Mercer, as characterised in 45 Years, would not allow Katya to gatecrash in the way that she does. Kate would remind Geoff, whom she not infrequently treats (and with good reason) as a difficult child, that she has seen to the anniversary preparations almost single-handed. She would kindly but firmly tell him that they need, for the next few days, to concentrate on the major social event of the party – that Katya can wait until the following week. In other words, Kate would have a sound pretext for keeping the lid on things during precisely the period to which Andrew Haigh chooses to limit the film’s action. Haigh’s previous film Weekend covered a period of only forty-eight hours; it’s not hard to understand why he may have been attracted to the short time frame of In Another Country. Yet his retaining this kind of timespan while working towards the dramatic finale that he’s invented sets up a thoroughgoing tension between the two central elements of the film – the anniversary party and the development of the crisis in the Mercers’ marriage.
An interesting and a believable feature of the relationship between Geoff and Katya is that it’s not, strictly speaking, a secret kept from Kate – even though, both on the page and on the screen, the Mercers have differing recollections of how much the husband told his wife about it in their early days together. Because the couple in the film – particularly Kate – seem to be more self-aware than their counterparts in the story, it’s a little puzzling that so little has been said about Katya over the years, but let that pass. Katya’s importance to Geoff emerges through a series of incremental admissions that he makes to Kate. She seems to absorb or, at least, to subdue these successfully, until their cumulative impact becomes too great. Yet the drip feed of revelations contradicts the evidence that Geoff is quickly and obviously obsessed with the news about, and the meaning of, Katya. There’s a scene in which Kate and Geoff are in a cafe and he knocks over a glass: his doing so indicates how worked up he is inside – it’s meant to be an earth tremor that Kate registers with a sense of foreboding. But since it’s already clear at this point that Geoff is consumed with thoughts of Katya, this isn’t how the cafe incident comes across. I got an increasing sense that the marital crisis was being artificially delayed by Andrew Haigh. Geoff goes up to the loft in the middle of the night to retrieve a single photograph of Katya; the much more extensive contents of his upstairs cache of memories are revealed in subsequent instalments, in order to maximise their impact. It’s not clear either which of the Mercers is initiating their conversations about Katya – or why Kate should regard it as a betrayal when Geoff admits he would have married Katya had she lived (or, at least, why Geoff doesn’t ask Kate to explain why she feels betrayed). In the short story, although there’s no doubt that the discovery of Katya’s body is the sole cause of the fundamental collapse of the Mercers’ world, you also know that the husband is inclined anyway to mood swings. (There’s more than one reference to getting some more of his pills from the doctor to calm Mr Mercer down.) In the film, Geoff is irascible without being volatile. I started to wonder, as I watched 45 Years, if Katya was meant to have opened a Pandora’s box on the marriage but, if so, Haigh doesn’t suggest any other causes of the crisis – beyond Geoff’s crabby immaturity, which the calm, adult Kate appears to accept and almost indulge.
Although the anniversary do is an essentially false structural device, there’s no doubt that, when the party finally arrives, it is, emotionally speaking, a triumph. It’s a big finish in one way that feels wrong: the scale of the event – there look to be hundreds of guests – is baffling for the couple whose lives the film has described. But the party is a powerful illustration of what a transcendent combination persuasive acting, the resonance of a story with your own experience and well-chosen music can be. Geoff’s speech, a tribute to Kate, is a beautiful piece of acting by Tom Courtenay and very moving: Kate and the cinema audience, unlike the party guests on screen, understand what’s behind the words. When the couple lead off the dancing to one of the songs they’ve chosen for the event, the Platters’ version of ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’, Andrew Haigh has the song play in its entirety. The number climaxes in lights reflected from the overhead glitterball that seem like snowflakes: the alpine connotation is achieved without seeming too artfully contrived. At the end of the dance, Haigh focuses on Charlotte Rampling’s face, wet with tears, and the effect is overwhelming – not least because the tears are ambiguous. Does Kate see Geoff’s speech as evidence that he truly loves her or that he wants to pretend to the world that he does? Is she expressing recognition that their relationship is irreparable or relief that they may have got through the worst? It’s hard not to see this final shot as pessimistic, especially as Haigh then delivers a sucker punch as he cuts to the closing credits and the opening bars of another of the Mercers’ party songs, the Moody Blues’ ‘Go Now’. (Don’t ask why anyone would choose such a lavishly miserable number, even if it’s one of their favourites, for a wedding anniversary celebration. Otherwise, the pop songs in the film are very right as evocations of a sixties courtship and marriage. As well as the selections for the anniversary party, including The Turtles’ ‘Happy Together’, we hear Lulu’s ‘To Sir With Love’ and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap’s ‘Young Girl’ playing on a car radio. Kate turns off the latter abruptly, which is understandable but a pity, since it’s such a great song.)
Although I think there are serious flaws in Andrew Haigh’s screenplay, there are some good details, both in the set-up and in the dialogue. I liked the way that, while Geoff, in conversation with Kate, often uses her forename, she seldom uses his: this both captures a difference in the ‘distance’ at which they see each other, and suggests that Geoff, at some level of his mind, needs to keep making the point that Kate isn’t Katya. On the Friday evening, after Kate has discovered that Geoff has visited a travel agent in Norwich to enquire about a trip to Switzerland and things between the Mercers reach a new low, Kate tells Geoff: ‘We’re going to have dinner, and we’re going to go to bed. And then we’re going to get up – and we’ll try to start again’. He obeys instructions and brings Kate a cup of tea in bed the following morning, having already successfully completed a piece of household plumbing that he’d struggled with earlier in the week. He suggests that, once he’s made them scrambled eggs for breakfast, they take the dog for a walk. ‘Great’, replies Kate, affable but bewildered. As he leaves the room, Geoff asks, ‘We have got eggs, haven’t we?’ The question is exactly the right one for this man to ask and, as well as being very funny, it demonstrates an admirably light touch on Haigh’s part.
In a newspaper interview last month, David Constantine explained the inspiration for In Another Country:
‘Holidaying in France some 15 years ago, Constantine heard of the discovery of a twenty-something mountaineer who had fallen down a glacial crevasse in Chamonix in the 1930s. Seventy years on, the retreating ice released its hold on the guide’s body, which the son he had fathered before his death was taken to identify. The shocking sight of his father – perfectly preserved in his prime, while he himself approached his eighties – tipped the son towards insanity.
“It’s a reversal [of] how it should be, the young man and the old man,” Constantine tells the Sunday Telegraph from his home in Oxford. “Everything I’ve ever written is based on a concrete image – and that young man frozen in the ice is particularly haunting.”’
While Andrew Haigh and his cinematographer Lol Crawley bring out the washed, melancholy tones of the Norfolk landscape, the ‘concrete image’ of Katya’s unaged body turns out to be a less potent visual element of the film than might be expected. Nevertheless, one of 45 Years‘ most gripping sequences comes when Kate finds and watches Geoff’s pictures of Katya on a slide projector. As the rate at which Kate moves from one slide to the next increases, the blurred figure of the dark-haired girl seems to be on the point of reanimation, of actually invading the room in which Kate is watching. The slides also give the clear impression that Katya was pregnant. Although this is made less explicit than in Constantine’s story (in which Mr Mercer eventually tells his wife that Katya was expecting their baby), childlessness is a strong subtext in 45 Years. The Mercers’ having no children isn’t explained but it’s what (in Kate’s view anyway) chiefly distinguishes them from their friends Lena and George (David Sibley), who have a grown-up daughter (Dolly Wells) and a grandchild. It’s what throws Kate and Geoff back on themselves and makes their relationship (plus the dog) virtually the whole of married life.
45 Years is, like In Another Country, a virtual two-hander and they are a marvellous two hands. This is the finest work from Tom Courtenay that I’ve seen since his very early film roles in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Billy Liar and King and Country. One particular subtlety is Courtenay’s suggestion of a kind of confusion in Geoff Mercer’s nostalgia – between Katya and his political hopes as a young man (even though I’m not convinced that Andrew Haigh has worked out such a connection). When I read that ‘Charlotte Rampling has never been better’ than in this film (the words of Tim Robey), I must admit my initial reaction was to think this wasn’t saying much. I knew it wasn’t fair to judge Rampling on what I’d last seen her in (the disappointing second series of Broadchurch on ITV) and she’s not someone whose career I’ve followed closely. But I’ve watched plenty of her films over the years – as long past as John Boorman’s Zardoz (1974), as recent as Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011) – and nothing would have prepared me for what she does in 45 Years. Writing about Rampling in Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter in 1974, Pauline Kael complained that:
‘… absolutely nothing emerges. As an actress, she has no hidden resources; there’s no soul beneath that perverse Mona Lisa face.’
There is now. (And the face is perhaps more beautiful than ever.) As Kate Mercer, Charlotte Rampling is simply, powerfully and deeply expressive; the emotional precision she brings to the role is a wonder. Where does a performance like this come from?
3 September and 17 October 2015