Cinema is all about the moving image. Seeing faces, gestures and movements in real-time, up close, is genuinely emotive. Images moving are themselves deeply moving. But sometimes still imagery is just as effective—sometimes even more so. A single image can conjure a memory, a fantasy, a desire. The sheer fact it’s a moment suspended in time is perhaps why it’s so powerful. Cinema has the ability to capture the passage of time. A single image has the ability to prevent it.
This idea is at the very heart of Andrew Haigh’s marvellous new film, 45 Years, and the image in question is that of a young woman named Katya— the first true love of Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay). She died almost five decades ago in the Swiss Alps. But now her body has been found—perfectly preserved as it once was all those years ago; her complexion frozen solid in the ice where she fell. Such a compelling image is made all the more effective through its refrain from on-screen depiction. Haigh instead wisely entrusts the audience to conjure the image in their heads. But this poetic (and disturbing) image—displaying a moment, quite literally, frozen in time—preys on the mind of Geoff’s wife, Kate (Charlotte Rampling). She’s been married to her husband for 45 years but only now does she realise there is (or once was) another woman; a woman he loved before they had met. And what’s more, she has the awful notion that her husband may even still be in love with her.
The arrival of Katya almost instils a horrible, unwanted sense of rivalry in Kate. But Katya tragically has the advantage of forever remaining youthful in the mind of Geoff, at a time when they were both very much in love. Much like the narrator’s concern over Maxim De Winter’s apparent infatuation with Rebecca in Daphne du Maurier’s classic, Kate seems to feel herself competing against a dead woman for the affection of her own husband.
The uncovering of Katya’s body immediately haunts the lives of Kate and Geoff. It may not always be the topic of discussion, but Katya is always there: haunting their subsequent actions; lingering quietly amidst their thoughts. This somewhat spectral aspect essentially makes 45 Years a ghost story without a ghost. Katya enters Kate’s life like an iceberg in the waters. And Kate feels as though her ship has been struck. She silently struggles to stay afloat.
The imagery in 45 Years is some of the most potent (and some of the most subtle) of any film this year. Ice and water are motifs used throughout the film to signal change and transformation—some preventable, others not. The face of his former lover re-entering his life provides Geoff a rather unwelcome opportunity to acknowledge his own mortality. Suddenly he is faced with a tangible link to the past, forcing him to recognise the inexorable process of aging. He looks at himself and sees an old man, yet there she is—an immaculately preserved reminder of what was and what could have been.
In the film, Kate is often photographed surrounded by water, her entire world rocking back and forth. Ice and water go hand in hand. As ice melts, we see what lies beneath; what secrets it reveals from the past. Kate’s world is now flooded with the remnants of this ice, and she now has to deal with the secret it has revealed. Her husband’s conversations on Climate Change throughout the film give strength to this metaphor. As ice melts, seas rise, and our world slowly contracts. Who knows what other secrets it will expose? At one point Kate flicks through Geoff’s book on the subject and we see pictures of Greenland’s borders slowly diminishing over time. The ice is melting. We cannot pretend to ignore it.
Charlotte Rampling is magnificent as Kate. She gives a wonderfully nuanced performance beautifully communicating Kate’s worries and anxieties over her newfound predicament. But she also gives Kate tremendous strength and spirit. “I know I was good enough for you,” she tells her husband during a confrontation, “I just worry you think I wasn’t.”
Rampling and Courtenay are completely convincing as a couple undoubtedly in love, even if their relationship at times—like all married couples—occasionally falters. I can think of few on-screen couples that are as real or as authentic as Kate and Geoff Mercer. It’s one thing to persuade an audience that a couple is in love, but it’s another to persuade an audience they’ve been in love a long time. There may be times that their relationship becomes tested, but it always manages to pass with resilience. And it is with this resilience that has made them last 45 years together. And it is with this resilience that we hope they may long continue.