It’s become something of a cliché in the last few years to hear of filmmakers at the peak of their gifts pushed out of cinema by money or bureaucracy only to be swept up and nourished by the comforting arms of television. How exciting then that filmmaker Andrew Haigh has returned to cinema after his stint writing, producing, and directing Looking for HBO, and that his return should come with such exceptional results.
Haigh’s new film 45 Years is the story of Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay), who on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary are rocked by the re-emergence of a figure from Geoff’s past. Geoff falls into the private trap of his own memory, leaving his wife to imagine what it is he seeks there. Ironic then that the relationship between its two iconic stars should be almost completely reversed. For Courtenay, 45 Years is a new venture, an exciting turn at the end of a long and varied career, but for Rampling, 45 Years represents a return, a remembrance, a reimagining, and a revelation.
Rampling was already making films before she started work with Italian director Luchino Visconti—most notably playing a supporting role as the bitter party girl in the British classic Georgy Girl—but it’s with Visconti that the Rampling persona came into focus.
Visconti was a member of one of Italy’s oldest aristocratic families and his films were fixated on decadence and the European fall from grace. As has proven the case with many of Rampling’s best collaborators, Visconti was also gay. Visconti directed Rampling in only one film, The Damned, but it was one of the most significant films of his career, an epic parable of a German family’s decay due to Nazism.
Visconti was obsessed with the Parisian writer Marcel Proust, and it was during the filming of The Damned that he was approached to adapt Proust’s masterpiece, In Search Of Lost Time. He developed the project with his usual set of stars in mind, including his newly discovered muse Charlotte Rampling, but the project was abandoned in 1971, and Visconti died shortly thereafter.
Proust himself was alive for cinema’s invention, and he allegedly didn’t think much of the new motion picture fad, but looking at the face of Proustian almost-star Charlotte Rampling a century after the author’s death, you’d be forgiven for second-guessing his proclamations. There is something of Proust in the cinema that’s developed since his death, at least in the magic of cinema’s stars. In stars, you can witness the same sensation of time laid flat before you—the past entangled with the present, the present obsessed with the future.
To see Charlotte Rampling in a film now is to see every Charlotte Rampling film that ever existed, to witness in her face every iteration of Rampling that has come before. As with Proust and Visconti, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years is a film obsessed with recollection and with conjuring the ghosts of lost time, but if the characters are focused on the unseen woman who fell through the ice, we are focused on the woman standing before us.
45 Years is a film that finds much of its power in the small, repeated actions that make up a life—the morning walks, the usual seat at the breakfast table, the favorite songs that have survived decades of attachment. The details of the actors’ movements, their comfortable and familiar ways with each other become infused with the same sense of repetition. Part of the way we watch Rampling and her co-star Courtenay is to imagine the thousands of times their walks and seats at the breakfast table and after-dinner dances didn’t make it to the screen and how many more we’ll miss once the credits start to roll.
With time in a state of constant reminiscence, every small action that deviates becomes a surprise, a source of mystery, a reminder of the time our characters have spent together without us. Rampling’s slim, still-athletic frame, her energy in movement, her casual humor, and her occasional disdain for her own station present us with a character quite different from the one that might be described in print as the childless country wife of a fading leftist. At any moment it seems possible Rampling might transform before our eyes into the bohemians and deviants of her past films, as if provincial Kate is just a mask one of her past characters put on as a lark, a mask that might slip and reveal a new woman in its place.
It is rare for films this thoughtful to be made about characters of advanced age, and it’s rarer still for the films that do get made to treat older characters as more than fixed objects, the complete and final result of choices that eventually strip the self into its purest and simplest form.
But with every suggestion of the roads not traveled, Rampling keeps her Kate untethered. In Rampling’s hands, Kate’s past was not fated, and her fate is remains unfixed. And it’s this quality that makes 45 Years feel so open to disaster. If Kate’s life is a product of happenstance as much as it is by choice, then a happenstance like a husband’s ex-lover resurfacing from the ice might be enough to send that life into a new unhappy direction.
I won’t reveal the ending of 45 Years, except to say that it is among the most moving scenes of recent cinematic memory, a credit to the film’s superb writer-director, Andrew Haigh. Such a perfect ending is reward enough for a film this good, but it happens that we’re entering our own season of repetition and missed opportunity. This morning the Gotham Awards announced their nominations for the best of the year in film, starting off this year’s long road to the Oscar ceremony, without recognition for 45 Years or Charlotte Rampling in it.
Films like 45 Years are often overlooked come awards season. They’re too small in scale and too large in ideas to find a foothold with voters who prefer the broad strokes of a filmmaker like Steven Spielberg or last year’s winner, Alejandro González Iñárritu.
But if 45 Years doesn’t look the part of an Oscar winner, here’s to hoping the Academy can be bothered to pop in their screeners for the sake of its star—the elusive and somehow still never nominated Charlotte Rampling, in what very well might be her best performance.