Andrew Haigh's new film, 45 Years, is based on a David Constantine short story, In Another Country, which was included in the 2005 collection, Under The Dam. The story's title is a nod to Christopher Marlowe's oft-quoted The Jew of Malta - "but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead" - which has served as a recurrent motif of alienation and relativism from T S Eliot's Portrait of a Lady, through James Baldwin's 1962 novel to Julian Mitchell's 1981 play about Guy Burgess. The dam of the collection title is the central metaphor of Constantine's story, a glacier holding back a huge body of melted ice-water that global warming will eventually release and "anything human in the way of it will be wiped out". Among the rocks and mud will be the corpse of a young woman: the past returned to haunt the present. Haigh's previous work as a director has focused on gay themes (Greek Pete, Weekend), and this new film could as easily have been about the destabilising revelation of youthful homosexuality for a settled heterosexual marriage, in the manner of 1961's The Victim. It is a tale of inter-generational conflict that largely avoids the young.
The 11-page short story has been skillfully expanded into a film, though it would have worked just as well as a half-hour radio play. A comfortably retired, childless couple, Geoff and Kate Mercer, about to celebrate their sapphire wedding anniversary, are disturbed when he receives an official letter from Switzerland confirming the discovery of the body of his ex-girlfriend, Katya, who fell into a glacier fissure in 1962. Her corpse has been revealed frozen in the ice, as the covering of snow has gradually melted, still as fresh and young as the that day she died. The film coolly watches as Geoff and Kate come to terms with this eruption of the past. Its quality is in the timing and phrasing of the leads, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, though both are also excellent at subtle visual communication: Courtenay's whole body oscillating between tragedy and comedy; Rampling's face a dark pool of emotion. There are essentially only two and half characters, with Lena, played by Geraldine James, acting as a rather cursory sounding board for Kate's concerns. This is a very British two-hander, in which silences and mutually-assured restraint create space for fears to grow and hopes to curdle.
The alternately grumpy and meek Geoff, who suffered a heart bypass 5 years previously (thus causing the cancellation of their ruby wedding anniversary), becomes loquacious and even poetic as he recalls the events of over 50 years ago when he and Katya walked south to Italy, posing as man and wife for social convenience. His language takes on the cadences of D H Lawrence, particularly of his poetry in Look! We Have Come Through!, a work that partly celebrated Lawrences' own southward Alpine crossing with Frieda Weekley, a woman temporarily estranged from her children by his love, just before the Great War. Geoff rhapsodises a violet flower that sprang up amid the snow (Constantine's story mentions blue gentians as well, an explicit reference to Lawrence's poem, Bavarian Gentians), emphasising how alive the young couple were, with no purpose beyond looking for food and a place to sleep, while the wider world grappled with the Cuban missile crisis and the erection of the Berlin Wall (in the story, set some 17 years earlier, the surroundings were more menacing: "with Hitler where they'd come from and Mussolini where they were going to").
The film has an undercurrent of class antagonism that is absent from the story. Kate was a respected teacher, with perfect upper-middle class diction; Geoff was an engineer, who worked his way up from the shopfloor to management and regrets the decline of the unions (his regret over a lost past is a key theme). She corrects his placing of Tollund (he's referring to the ancient bodies preserved in peat) from Sweden to Denmark ("I had to teach it"), and cheerfully derides his three attempts to tackle Kierkegaard ("you've got three copies of that book and you've never got beyond chapter two" - We never learn which book, but the Dane's concerns with choice and anxiety are suggestive). He generally responds with patient silence, not unlike a cowed schoolboy, but notes her father's dislike of him as a suitor in his speech at the wedding anniversary party: a small revenge. She is a model of structure and habit: walk the dog, drink a glass of water, pop into town. When their shared life appears to be on the brink of unravelling, she cleaves to routine: he'll take his pills, they'll eat their meal, they'll go to bed, and tomorrow they'll go on. But this is more a determination to discipline the imagination than Beckettian resignation.
Their world is flat. The film is set is rural Norfolk, with bustling Norwich serving as a backdrop for Kate's increasing alienation and a rather obvious visual link between weddings and Switzerland by way of a jewellers. Their home is bleached, rustic and comfortingly middle class: the Roberts radio, the grey Skoda, the cream Aga. Kate on screen is far less severe and unsympathetic than on the page, where the couple are only ever Mr and Mrs - only Katya has a first name in the story. The promotion to cinema has also upgraded their material circumstances. In the original, they live in a small house ("nowhere to pace") with a flagstone garden on a dull estate in North Wales (Mrs Mercer takes day-trips to Prestatyn and Horseshoe Pass). Evenings are spent watching TV, rather than listening to classical music, and the books mostly come from the library. What's consistent is the inverted fissure of the loft, a glacier-like deep storage from which troubling mementoes emerge.
In the story, Katya is revealed to be a Jewish orphan and her death occurs in late wartime (what Mr Mercer is doing in Switzerland is unclear). The revelation of Katya's pregnancy comes directly from Geoff, not, as in the film, when Kate discovers old photographic slides. He says they were "heedless", but admits to himself that their certainty that they wanted a child and to go on living together was anything but. In the film this becomes the admission that they would have married, that Katya would have become Mrs Mercer, had she survived. For the actual Mrs Mercer in Constantine's tale, "All she wanted was to be able to say it hasn't been nothing, it hasn't been a waste of time, the fifty years, that they amount to something, if not a child". The story ends with Mr Mercer setting off on a probably abortive attempt to get to Switzerland. In the film he eschews any such mad idea, settles for social conformity and does the right thing at the celebratory party - he toasts Kate as the best decision he ever made and blubs, as Lena confidently predicted he would.
With little visual exuberance - the flat Norfolk Broads are a blunt contrast to the unseen Alps, though they do allow for references to digging - the film over-invests in music as a symbol of the Mercer's shared history, with ironic if unsubtle pointers to their contemporary pain. The Platters' Smoke Gets in You Eyes bookends the film (Kate hums it as Geoff opens the fateful letter, and it is the first number they dance to at the party), but hearing "when an old flame dies" repeatedly is bathetic. A distracted Kate, prompted over the phone for the party playlist, runs out of steam and ends with "Oh, and The Moody Blues". Are you trying to tell us something, dearie? When Gary Puckett & The Union Gap's Young Girl comes on the radio in the car while she is travelling with Lena, Kate promptly turns it off. A more realistic response would have been a sour joke about Jimmy Savile.
Where the film works better is in its suggestive elisions, such as the "big decisions" that Kate now fears Geoff regrets, the key one presumably being the decision not to have children (explicit in the story). Her angst stems from the fear that this was a decision made with Katya in mind more than her. At the anniversary party, Lena presents the couple with a collage of photos, a summary of the view that others have had of them over the years, a moment that is both chilling and warm, and reminiscent of the surveillance trope in that great film of bourgeois guilt, Michael Haneke's Caché. They see how young they were, how dogs substituted for children, and Kate suddenly realises how little all this has meant. Where Geoff at least has had substantial regrets to cosset, she has too easily accommodated herself to limits and lack - making a virtue of placid emptiness. Perhaps Kate's final realisation, superbly rendered on Rampling's haunted face amid the party crowd, is that she has never got beyond chapter two either, and her chance to do so has now gone. Geoff at least repeatedly tried.