Monday, February 1, 2016

45 Years

45 YEARS                              B+           
Great Britain  (95 mi)  2016  d:  Andrew Haigh                    Official site

Pomp and circumstances, where we have curiously grown into a society that loves to celebrate ourselves, which seems like an excuse to cover up the lengthy periods of emptiness and disenchantment that define our lives, unhappy with our jobs, our nation’s leaders, and the inexplicable violence that continues to erupt around the globe, instead throwing a good party for ourselves, claiming we deserve it.  This is a curiously understated, beautifully acted, slowly developing portrait of a longstanding marriage, where the length of time together would seem to suggest solid footing, but we’re on especially delicate grounds here.  Underneath the storyline is a crumbling dissection of class differentiation covering a veneer of happiness, where settling into the customs and habits of the bourgeoisie isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be, where there are longstanding disappointments on the limitations of so-called success.  That being said, the film is set in the rural outlying areas of Norfolk, England, where we’re witness to the established routines of an aging couple that’s been together for nearly half a century, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay), where Kate rises early in the morning to give the dog a nice, long walk through the mostly unpopulated territories of the region, where Geoff is about through with breakfast by the time they arrive back, where she dutifully cleans up afterwards.  We’re privy to the smaller aspects of their day, chatting about nothing in particular before she heads into town to run errands while he sets about performing needed chores around the house, where they each exist in a comfort zone with as little confrontation as possible.  After dinner, having discussed whatever needs to be discussed, they head upstairs where they’re in bed by 10:30, only to do it all over again the very next day.  Living a comfortable existence in retirement, the film itself is a series of collected minutiae, where we’re able to surmise little dissension in the ranks, but within the week they’re expected to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary, an event that’s been planned for weeks and months, where they stand up before a gathering of family and friends and honor their marital stability, performed by the standard bearers of British theater, where Rampling was the recipient of a 2015 Lifetime Achievement Award from the European Film Awards, while Courtenay was honored with knighthood in February 2001 for his contribution to the nation’s theater and cinema. 

While on the surface, what could be simpler?  Part of the film’s fascination is that it appears to be driven by offscreen issues, by something we’re never familiar with, which can be an unsettling experience for the audience, as whatever truth there is to be found remains ambiguous.  What sets this apart is the influence of the writer/director, whose acclaimed earlier film Weekend (2011) is considered one of the more naturalistic portrayals of gay romance, where one might expect something altogether different going on underneath the surface of this film.  Adapting a short story by David Constantine called In Another Country, Haigh resets the time period, making the couple a bit younger, where their paths initially meet in the 60’s, a time of social upheaval, changing the overall context of the story, adding the anniversary story at the end while altering the central psychological point of view from the husband to the wife.  Setting the story in motion is the receipt of a letter, where Geoff has to pull out an old foreign-language dictionary just to be able to read it, coming from Swiss authorities announcing the discovery of a dead body in the Swiss Alps they believe is Katya, his former lover before he met Kate, whose frozen body has been perfectly preserved in the glacier ice from a hiking accident that happened in the early 60’s.  While initially this revelation from his past seems to stir little to no reaction at all, by the end of the week, however, the impact has the makings of potentially undermining their marriage.  The film follows the day-by-day developments in their lives as they approach the celebration, where ever so slowly there is a shift in their understanding of one another, where this single event has a way of eroding their trust and confidence, though on the surface things stay primarily the same.  It’s an interesting take on the fragility of relationships, even with long-established couples, where sometimes the least expected thing can cause irrational ebbs and flows, where it may not necessarily even make sense, but it certainly happens.  The premise here is that it’s not supposed to happen, as couples like this are the bedrock of the community, having endured their share of adversity, supposedly setting an example for others.  But even they are susceptible to unexpected surprises, despite having built a good life for themselves, with a dog filling the spaces of children they never had, where there’s a noticeable absence of family photos, no smiling pictures of grandchildren, with most of their personal memorabilia tucked away in the attic somewhere.   

Memories of Katya start infiltrating their lives, where Geoff ruminates over his lost dreams, remembering a time in his life when he still held convictions, associating Katya’s death with his own resurrected youth, where he certainly anticipated a different life, filled with progressive young ideals about social change, while now he finds himself surrounded by people that reflect that status quo, exactly what he once railed against.  When he sneaks into the attic at night to sneak a peek of old photographs, Kate grows concerned by a change in habits, where he starts sneaking cigarettes as well, suddenly viewed as the forbidden fruit, something they both decided long ago to overcome, making a pact to stop smoking.  While distressing, it’s not altogether earthshaking, yet Geoff, it seems, is going through a period of mourning, where remembering the dead is part of the expression of grief.  This is not something Kate sympathizes with, as she is and has always been consumed by bourgeois values, with social expectations suggesting she may be more worried about what others think than the man sitting across from her, where her emotional state of repression and icy reserve is guarded like the national treasury, rarely exhibiting any feelings of spontaneity or even charisma, where her over-controlling manner sets her apart from others, but it’s based on presumed middle class security, where she’s rarely, if ever, been under threat.  Nonetheless, it’s her dog that is seen as her loyal companion, while Geoff continues to surprise her and do the unexpected, which she thinks is getting away from her, where she’s losing all control.  In her mind, her husband’s feelings are borderline infidelity, as he insists on re-experiencing faded memories, where Katya’s spirit is like an unexpected ghost that is now terrorizing and haunting her, allowing doubts to creep in, where Geoff does little to dispel her growing anxiety.  Instead she grows tired of smelling Katya’s perfume, seeing her pictures, the preserved diary with dried flower petals, or feeling the hold she still has on her husband, growing increasingly frustrated, where she’s beginning to think she doesn’t even know the man she’s been married to all these years.  In an impetuous moment, Geoff calls Kate’s best friend a fascist for being a Margaret Thatcher apologist.  Mind you, this is the lady that’s springing for the party, so courtesy suggests a certain amount of gratitude, but it’s symptomatic of a fissure that’s grown between them, where long-frozen secrets are suddenly springing to life.  Who’s more of a domineering Thatcherite than Kate, making an ultimatum about how it’s going to be the night before their anniversary party, adding pressure to a crucial speaking appearance before the distinguished guests, where it’s as if Geoff is delivering a speech before the House of Lords.  Meanwhile Kate, suddenly exposed and vulnerable, reacts angrily, thinking the unthinkable, as love is illusive, subject to unalterable shifts, but only because their unspoken feelings have been left to fester for so long.  Much of the viewer’s take on this film is highly subjective, as it all comes down to how you read the characters, where the real intrigue is how quietly devastating the final sequence becomes. 

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