Performance, and in particular the stellar one given by Charlotte Rampling, is sure to form much of the critical discussion around 45 Years. I offer some observations about the film’s political and social undercurrents as one of its less obvious pleasures. Although I shall battle to keep in focus, as far as possible, issues external to the protagonists’ marriage, the adage that the personal is political, something borne out in the film, makes this difficult.
With the celebration Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are throwing to mark their forty-fifth wedding anniversary on the horizon, and with various arrangements to finalise, the arrival of news about an old flame of Geoff’s - Katya - is inconvenient to say the least. The letter from Switzerland, which notifies Geoff that her body - missing for more than fifty years - has been found in an Alpine glacier, is only one of the means by which Katya gate-crashes the party. With Geoff’s shaky grasp of German, the letter’s finer points are lost on him until Kate helps him to locate his old dictionary, which has been packed away in a storage box in the garage. Each discovery made in the course of the film, even seemingly innocuous ones like the dictionary, brings Kate closer to the unsuspected enormity of Katya’s role in her life. Interestingly, Kate doesn’t question Geoff’s being on the receiving end of such a letter, and he later reveals that he is Katya’s official next of kin: the social mores of 1962 dictated they pretend to be married in order to share accommodation as they travelled together. His having concealed his status as ‘another woman’s next of kin’ (their euphemism for another woman’s ‘husband’) sows early seeds of suspicion in Kate.
As Geoff says more about his Alpine trek with Katya, and her accidental fall to her death, he touches very briefly on its political context: up in the mountains they forgot about the Bay of Pigs and the construction of the wall dividing Katya’s native Berlin in two, both of which served to reinforce the world’s cleaving into opposing ideological spheres. Though these details are only mentioned in passing, they allude to the fact that, politically, tectonic plates were shifting, rifts and fissures deepening, freedom of movement being curtailed, and parts of the global community becoming estranged from each other. It is not definitively stated on which side of Berlin Katya would have been walled were she not in the Alps. Ostensibly, Geoff at least wasn’t subject to travel restrictions, and isn’t in the present either, though it becomes increasingly clear that the letter is an invitation to Switzerland he would accept if he were allowed. We are led to believe that the prohibition on his going is the pressure of Kate’s anxiety and displeasure. As scenes unfold under the leaden skies of the Norfolk Broads, it seems that on Katya’s death, Geoff descended from the exhilarating peaks of a romantic, fantasy marriage to the troughs of subjugation to the ‘totalitarian state’ of legal union with Kate in flat, monotonous marshland. Yet there is a strong hint towards other obstacles to his performing his role as Katya’s next of kin.
Before Geoff has even accessed his German-English dictionary to decipher the letter properly, a knowledge of similar situations stored in his memory from news reports, documentaries and so on puts him in a position to speculate about how well preserved Katya is likely to be, and he mentions the so-called Tollund Man and missing World War Two airmen who were identified decades later from their frozen remains. What also becomes clear is Geoff’s dismay at the thought that Katya will be exactly as she was the day she, a young woman, fell, whereas he, well, he looks ‘like this’: an old man. The notion that his dead girlfriend will no longer find him attractive is peculiar, a window on his state of mind.
Geoff takes his library card out of mothballs in order to borrow a book on climate change and informs Kate that they ought to recycle; glaciers are melting (a process which has led to the emergence of Katya) and water seeping into, and building dangerously in, rocks. One day they will burst like a dam, sweeping away everything in their wake. Kate, who counters that she already recycles, and invites him to take on the cleaning and sorting of dog-food tins into the correct bin, is unimpressed by his newfound environmental interests. We begin to understand that, for Geoff, Katya is, and must remain, Snow White suspended in a glass sarcophagus. His would-be co-option of his wife in preserving the glacial tomb of her predecessor (cloaked in concern about global warming) turns up the heat in his immediate microclimate as Kate reads the ominous pointers to the true nature of his feelings, though he seems oblivious to the thin ice upon which he skates.
It is at the point their mutual friends begin to fret about Geoff’s ‘funny mood’ that Kate fears for the public façade of their happy marriage, which the party is designed to shore up. Kate defends the oddness of the forty-five-year celebratory milestone to a representative from the party’s venue by explaining that Geoff was undergoing a heart bypass operation when they would have marked forty years. Of course, it is difficult not to see the heart bypass’ coincidence with the more significant anniversary as having a metaphorical connotation as well as being medical reality. We might also speculate that the forty-five-year anniversary loosely corresponds to the fifty years that have passed since Geoff’s dalliance with the first woman he called his wife. The representative’s enquiries also entail Kate justifying their decision not to make themselves the ‘focal point’ at the party by having a ‘top table’ (which she does by stating Geoff’s belief that the custom is ‘bourgeois’). We detect that the credibility of the institution of ‘Kate and Geoff’ is compromised in the public gaze by these small departures from convention and by inconsistencies that have Geoff looking askance at the social world of which he and Kate are part. In what is characterised as one of Geoff’s foibles, a close friend, Lena, reminds Kate of an occasion when, drunk at her birthday party, he called Lena a fascist in response to a positive comment she had made about Margaret Thatcher. ‘He kept doing a Nazi salute’, she winces, smarting despite her inclination to laugh at the memory. The following day we see something similar first-hand when, having been drinking all afternoon at a work reunion, Geoff, slurring his words, rants about changes of which he doesn’t approve: the abolition of the first job he had there (in a concrete works); that ‘the unions don’t give a shit’, that the way his friends are aging isn’t ‘pretty’ and that Len --" a colleague they used to call ‘Red Len’ or ‘Lenin’ --" has a grandson who is a banker and now owns a villa on the Algarve where he has retired to play golf. From the passenger seat of the family saloon, Geoff’s fury at what he perceives as his contemporaries’ continental drift from their principles, is transparent in its expression of his own frustrations; not only that he himself has floated into complacent, middle-class dotage, but also a sense that he knew where he was once - in other words, some old certainties are breaking down and washing him away. The incontinence of his subsequent vomiting is the ‘dam’ springing another leak. Were the twenty-seven-year-old Katya living and breathing, rather than a perfectly preserved relic, we would read his ‘reconnection’ with her as a classic bid to recapture his youth via an age-gap affair. Naturally, this trope is complicated by the fact that she is dead, yet she nonetheless functions as a conduit to parts of himself he has perhaps suppressed in the cause of marital harmony. A scene in which Kate plays the piano, having routed out some old sheet music from another of the garage’s storage containers, shows us that the same fate has befallen them both; that marriage has meant packing elements of themselves into boxes stowed away in garages and attics, which function like the Alpine glacier and its ghostly inhabitant; an icon of paths taken or not taken. Indeed, Kate’s past, her attitudes, her character and what she has brought to their marriage, remain almost as obscure as if she were the figure submerged in ice: for example, we don’t get a sense of how far she goes along with Geoff’s views or whether she merely tolerates them.
The trope of the younger woman’s threat to an established marriage is also rendered complex by the fact that the ‘younger’ woman is older: she is the ‘first wife’, the first Mrs Rochester (or Mrs de Winter). As such, she is not so much the madwoman in the attic as simply the woman in the attic by dint of Geoff’s keeping photos of her there; it is Geoff and Kate who, in turn, take to haunting their own house by climbing into the loft to seek her out. The more that is revealed about Katya, the more Kate believes herself Geoff’s consolation prize, a facsimile of his lost love. There is no open acknowledgement that the women almost share a forename, though eventually Kate tries to forbid Geoff from pronouncing Katya’s name aloud. If the mental image of a woman frozen in a glacier wasn’t uncanny enough, Kate makes the deeply disconcerting discovery that the attic houses her husband’s secret life. Earlier in the narrative the couple discuss the fact that they have few photos of themselves and ascribe this to not having had children. Though Geoff has a camera ‘somewhere’, he suggests it was Kate who didn’t see the point in taking photos, a version of events she seems to accept, though not unreservedly. Kate’s morbid curiosity drives her into the attic because she knows Geoff found Katya’s photo there when he left their bed to go hunting for it in the middle of the night. Kate’s scene in the attic suggests her raiding her husband’s space for clues to incriminate him, and that, up till then she has subconsciously ceded it as off-limits; the mad barking of their German shepherd as she prepares to ascend indicates that on an instinctive level the animal senses a transgression and seems to want to warn her away. Her discovery of a whole series of slides bearing Katya’s image from the holiday in the Alps seems to give the lie to the idea that photos aren’t important to Geoff. On the contrary, their repetitive nature hints at his fixation on capturing Katya’s image. During a scene in which Kate compulsively views slide after slide of Katya posing in the mountains, her expression grows more horrified during a run of images in which we can see from Katya’s hand that she isn’t wearing the oak wedding ring, ‘like a curtain ring --" it wasn’t real’, that Geoff said she wore to persuade hoteliers and the like that they were married. The implications of this are nowhere verbalised or made explicit. If we take what Geoff tells Kate at face value we must speculate that perhaps Katya didn’t wear the ring when there was no need. However, it is clear from Kate’s expression that she reads something more sinister into its non-appearance. Previously, Geoff had talked about having hired a guide, whom he privately nicknamed Kerouac, to take them to the Italian border. From Geoff’s description of the accident and its lead-up, he was jealous of Kerouac: Katya and Kerouac sometimes walked ahead chatting and joking in German while he followed --" and the accident occurred at just such a point so that Kerouac was the only witness. All of this leaves room to doubt the veracity of Geoff’s gloss on their supposed relationship, despite the fact that he answers the question Kate poses about what would have happened if Katya hadn’t died with ‘we would have married each other’. The film is ambiguous on the point, but Geoff might have staked his claim to Katya after the accident, which is an explanation for her not wearing a ring in the pictures, and is perhaps the real reason Geoff ultimately dare not take up the Swiss invitation. Moreover, the ring’s absence casts doubt on everything Geoff has recounted about the trip and the accident. In their heated discussions about whether or not Geoff will go to Switzerland, he admits that his poor fitness --" his incapacity to ‘climb a fucking mountain’ --" isn’t why he won’t, despite clearly wanting to. In a telling statement that follows, Kate says, ‘I’d like to be able to tell you everything I’m thinking, and the things I know, but I can’t. Can you understand that?’ Geoff affirms he can. Though this expresses a wider truth about the difficulties of communication between people, I am inclined to read the exchange as applying to something more specific: Kate is warning Geoff that she has reason to suspect his version of events in Switzerland. It’s a promise to keep quiet that conceals a threat: the couple understand each other perfectly. The ‘pact’ is sealed when she says, ‘We’re gonna have dinner, then we’re gonna go to bed, and then we’re gonna get up and we’ll try and start again.’ ‘I think I can do that, Kate,’ replies Geoff in a somewhat cowed tone. Whatever the truth, any of the possibilities suggest that Geoff has based the choices he has made in life on his obsession with someone who didn’t necessarily reciprocate his feelings. The missing ring seems to confirm Kate’s earlier assessment that he was merely ‘chasing a girl who wanted to be chased’. (We find out from the speech Geoff makes at the party that both Kate and her father needed a considerable amount of persuasion to accept his proposal, so we can imagine Kate recognises the desire to be pursued.)
Though commanded by Lena to use his speech at the party to pay tribute to Kate, Geoff instead emphasises the momentous nature of the choices one makes when young, how he doesn’t regret his decision to marry Kate and his gratitude at her - and her father’s - hard-won consent. This self-congratulation and self-justification is hardly what was ordered, but accompanied as it is by an eventual declaration of love (and his breakdown in tears, which is what Lena had encouraged Kate to anticipate as the inevitable testimony to his feelings), it seems to the inattentive ear that he has fulfilled his brief. It is at such moments Rampling’s performance - the darting, anxious sidelong glances she casts, when she feels she is unobserved, to make sure that his speech and tears have been enough to convince the guests; to check that she is the only one who has recognised the thinness of his tribute --" is at its most masterful. In a similar way, the song that accompanied their first dance at their wedding, and which Kate suggests they have again at the party, The Platters’ Smoke Gets In Your Eyes triggers a final chilling epiphany. The uninterrupted playing of the song as they dance, and the absence of dialogue in the scene, allows its lyrics to yield their truths up to Kate for the first time: that Geoff’s ‘lovely flame’ has died, that his ‘love has gone away’ and he must construct other fictions in order to explain his tears of mourning. Apart from the hint that Geoff’s tears are for Katya, the fact that it is Kate who suggests the song this time around forces her to recognise the extent to which she has unwittingly internalised Geoff’s agenda. This begins to dawn at the beginning of the film when they first discuss the letter. She remembers that she taught Tollund Man to her students at school, no doubt influenced by Geoff’s enthusiasm: now she knows its source, she understands herself as having adapted to his tastes and choices, all the time thinking that she was exercising a volition and control of her own.
The Cold War, heightened in the early 1960s by events like the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis, lasted around forty-five years. The Berlin Wall came down when a critical mass of people understood the state’s restrictions as contingent on their compliance - something they were eventually pleased to withhold. The film might serve as a subtle reminder that we shouldn’t take our thoughts, feelings and motives for granted. While it might be an extreme Bergmanian position to call institutions (marriage, for example) a ‘tissue of lies’, it pays to recognise the tissue itself (of attraction, fantasy, projection, negotiation, compromise, evasion etc) at least. The tissue is relevant in another sense supported by the melting glacier: that the personal is political and everything’s connected.