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An Icy Chill From The Past Threatens A Steady Flame In '45 Years'

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling are a long-married couple unsettled by a revelation from his past in <em>45 Years.</em>
Agatha A. Nitecka
IFC Films
Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling are a long-married couple unsettled by a revelation from his past in 45 Years.

A short story about a long marriage — "In Another Country" by David Constantine — provided source-material for Andrew Haigh's breathtaking marital drama, 45 Years, but it's been enhanced and sharpened in its transition to the screen. What was once a story that harked back to WWII, and was loosely based on a real incident, has become a devastatingly intimate tale about a couple unsettled late-in-life, by an unexpected revelation.

Kate and Geoff Mercer (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) are living out their twilight years in Norfolk, one of the flattest spots in Britain. Nary a bump in the landscape, and from the couple's ease with each other, it seems their marriage is also smooth.

Kate's planning a 45th anniversary party, and wonders as she brings in the mail, whether "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" is the right song to play. It was the first song they danced to at their wedding. Too on the money? The question gets her a kiss.

Then Geoff opens the envelope she's just handed him, and his brow creases.

In a melting glacier in the Alps, Swiss authorities have spotted the perfectly preserved body of a young woman. They suspect it's Katya, the girlfriend Geoff was hiking with 50 years ago, when she fell into a crevasse. When Geoff puzzles out the rest of the letter (his German is rusty), it seems they want him to identify the body because he's listed as her next-of-kin. Kate is thunderstruck.

Why, his wife wonders, did they think she was his next-of-kin? She knew his girlfriend had died, but not that they'd pretended to be married. And if it was innocent, why didn't her husband simply tell her?

Pressed, Geoff replies that it's not the sort of thing one tells one's "beautiful new girlfriend." And she allows how she can't really be cross about something that happened before they met. "Still ..." she says.

And in that single syllable — "still" — lie the seeds of marital catastrophe. Writer and director Haigh is examining a marriage disrupted by what hasn't been said, what won't be said. So it's in Tom Courtenay's halting stammer that you hear Geoff struggling to give his wife reassurance he's not sure he feels himself, and in Charlotte Rampling's eyes that you see Kate's dawning realization of what she (as a beautiful, devoted wife, at 70) is up against: Not just memories of a woman with whom she very nearly shares a name — Katya/Kate — but that woman's youth kept literally on ice for five decades.

Kate thinks back on 45 years of marriage, suddenly second-guessing every choice she and Geoff have made. That song for their anniversary party, with lyrics about "tears I cannot hide"? What were they thinking? Still ...

They push through to the party. Geoff does his damnedest. Kate holds on for dear life. And the director holds too, on a sustained shot of the teamwork that's gotten these two through 45 years, and that may also mark the moment — in the lyrics of that song they're still dancing to — "when a lovely flame dies."

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Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.