I had two revelations tonight.
The first was that my enthusiastic Spanish lecturer was pronouncing Andrew Haigh’s name wrong all along. It’s Hague-like-the-bald-politician-twat, not High-as-a-kite. Mind-boggling.
The second was how my favourite film, WEEKEND, and Haigh’s second film, is no longer my favourite film, because it’s been trumped by his third: 45 YEARS.
WEEKEND manages to make a Nottingham estate and high street twinkle with poetic realism and similarly, 45 YEARS captures the safe and unchallenging flat Yorkshire landscape through a haunting prism of perception. A ghost story about a couple celebrating 45 years of marriage? This is perhaps the only writer and director that could have made it work.
Kate (Charlotte Rampling: winner of the Silver Bear for Best Actress at The Berlin International Film Festival for the role) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay: winner of the Silver Bear for Best Actor at the same festival for his) are approaching their 45th anniversary and to celebrate are hosting a party. A week before the event Geoff receives a letter confirming that the body of his ex girlfriend has been discovered, who died when he was 25 in a Swiss Alp’s accident during their travels together (the moment is later heart-breakingly described as she slips through the ice a split second after laughing at a joke). The days leading on from then until the party rearrange the parameters of the couple’s lives: lines that were once solid become blurred, truths are doubted, and the big enemy of happy relationships – self doubt – sets in.
In that singular letter, a wound has been opened that needs to be redressed as if it has just happened, and Kate and Geoff realise for the first time since being together that they have never openly spoken about the incident, despite it being such a huge loss in Geoff’s life. Katia (the ex), in manner of Daphne Du Maurier’s haunting character REBECCA which Alfred Hitchcock adapted for the screen, becomes an obsession in the house. A new, yet old, presence, that changes everything.
Kate and Geoff’s space is magically carved up to aid the unfolding of the story. Kate working photos of her husband’s old girlfriend through the clunky projector (who by this stage we are dying to put a face to), hidden up in the tree-house like loft which seems to hide all the secrets of the past, is reminiscent of someone frantically sifting through Facebook pictures of their partner, simultaneously hating themselves whilst obeying a sickening desperation to find the evidence they are seeking for. (…And obviously, it goes without saying, I’m just imagining how that feels. Yes.)
The spaces we as individuals inhabit now are increasingly digital, and consequently, inevitably, that changes our relationships. By experiencing things through a lifeless form, there will be contention: digital spaces do not decay, but we do. Haigh’s most genius achievement here is his ability to reflect the contemporary human condition – often isolated, disconcerted, and floating through fragmented time limbo as we try to reconcile the impending past with the present – within the simple domestic story of an older couple. Not a single explicit peep about technology, but all the suggestions are firmly worked into the film’s fabric.
Outside of the house, the stretching English countryside and weighted sky facilitates the couple’s lost wanderings, personifying the sense of helplessness and loss of control that has befallen them. The happy home and liberating outdoors becomes claustrophobic suddenly. And it is this fact which is so heartbreaking to realise as 45 YEARS tentatively creeps towards the end party: after a whole lifetime of love together, one single piece of information has potentially eradicated the foundations on which it was built. How would you even mentally cope with that?
Comparing WEEKEND and 45 YEARS, Haigh describes the two as book-ending each other, one being the beginning of a relationship cultivated over a singular weekend and the other possibly the end of a huge expanse of time. But they both reveal how bloody hard it is to make relationships work nowadays. ‘I look at relationships around me and I think people pretend to talk but they don’t really talk about their inner feelings and their fears because it’s terrifying, especially the longer you end up being with someone,’ says Haigh. ‘I think everyone pretends to be open and free with their partner but no one really is.’
Courtenay spoke of his character’s journey through the film: ‘He’s looking back at a life 50 years ago that may well have turned out very badly because the girl was already flirting with the guide -‘ audience laughter, because they don’t get what he’s saying yet – ‘…No, it’s true, it’s a wonderful description of when she did die. It’s a marvellous bit of writing – a joy to do: the last sound but one that he heard was her laughing at this guide’s joke. It makes him very angry (he is jealous). But the next sound was her scream. It may well have been that they had an awful life, but he doesn’t know that. And it’s very distressing for Kate because she’s doing all the work for their anniversary and he’s miles away.’
This was the most insightful comment of the panel discussion in my opinion. It captures the essence of what good script writing is: revealing through the ordinary, the so relateable, worlds of possibility that sends your imagination spiraling, and illuminates parts of the characters that you wouldn’t have dreamed were there. What is framed as a funny anecdote becomes the axis on which the entire lives of these characters teeters and then finally swings from left to right.
Because Haigh is teaching us, one masterpiece at a time, that all the tools and beauty and magic of life have always been right there, at our fingertips, in the simple fact of themselves. Unassuming, unobtrusive, and real.
The Last Word: Haigh is filling a gap that no one else even knows exists
45 Years is released in the UK on the 28th August.