The ghost stories of Henry James weren’t about ghosts. They were the residue of tortured psyches, the ethereal embodiments of our deepest fears. As James described them, ghosts were “the strange and sinister embroidered on the very type of the normal and easy.”
45 Years looks like a movie about old people. The advertisements show an elderly couple (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) making breakfast, standing in a yard, gazing into the distance. What is this boring thing?
The film is a ghost story of the Jamesian variety. On the surface, it’s ordinary—even uneventful—but an unnatural presence lurks beneath “the normal and easy.” Kate is a retired schoolteacher who lives with Geoff in their comfortable English home. The moors and winding roads that surround them still have a whiff of the old country, of Wuthering Heights where, “every breath from the hills [was] so full of life, that it seemed whoever respired it, though dying, might revive.”
The “revival” of which Brontë spoke actually arrives with a letter from Switzerland. “They found her,” Geoff says. The way he says it, we know he’s talking about a body. “Found who?” Kate asks. It’s Katya, “my Katya.” Already, there is awkwardness in the intimacy of his words. Writer-director Andrew Haigh (Weekend) opts for restraint over revelation, creating a tension in the details. Only gradually do we learn that Katya was Geoff’s long-ago lover. While they were traveling in the Alps, she slipped in a crack and fell to her death. Her body has been uncovered and he’s been invited to see it.
For a moment, it seems 45 Years might turn into an adventure wherein two old folks climb a mountain. That doesn’t happen, of course, because Geoff can barely take a walk without getting winded. There’s no way he can traverse a mountain in some Shelley-esque quest. Geoff folds the letter and life goes on.
Geoff is a dynamic character and a good husband, reading the paper and fixing the toilet, but 45 Years is primarily a portrait of Kate, and Haigh watches her with infinite patience. For long stretches of time, nothing happens. She looks out of windows, washes the dishes, and drives into town, all with curiously vacant eyes. It’s as if she’s always thinking and at the same time trying not to. She has friends, a nice dog, and even a respectable sex life, but Katya’s ghost is a restless one and her name (coincidentally similar to Kate’s) keeps coming up.
Awoken in the middle of the night, Kate is alone. She gets out of bed and finds Geoff in the attic. She doesn’t have to ask—she knows what he’s doing—and she insists on seeing the photo of Katya. He reluctantly hands it to her and as soon as she sees it, she places it facedown. Haigh wisely chooses not to show us the image. Whatever Kate is seeing and feeling, it’s more than just envy. It’s the frustration of having to remember that love isn’t as strong as death.
Geoff is a mumbly, fine fellow who won’t give Kate’s concerns much credence. Any strain in their relationship isn’t worth acknowledging. Things return to normal until their forty-fifth-anniversary party, when Geoff makes a toast. His reticence disappears and he articulates some of the feelings he’s been bottling up. If our attention ebbs, it’s only because of Kate. Seated calmly beside her husband of nearly five decades, she wears a look that words cannot describe.
As a serious, sometimes severe woman who only gradually gains our sympathy, Rampling gives a remarkable performance. Her journey, which begins with a simple question, (“What does the letter say?”) leads, irrevocably, to the dilemmas that plagued our greatest philosophers. The one that seems most relevant is Søren Kierkegaard, particularly his Concept of Anxiety. (Indeed, he makes a cameo appearance when Geoff is found reading one of his books.) When Kate finds old sheet music, plays the piano and stops, mid-note, it’s as though she’s feeling the Kierkegaardean “dizziness of freedom;” the “unfocused fear” that comes with realizing one’s own power in choosing one’s fate. Why did she ever stop playing piano? She could have been someone else.
“The Jolly Corner” was Henry James’ most underrated ghost story. A man returns to his apartment in New York after thirty-three years of living abroad. The homecoming prompts reflection and he’s visited by the specter of his alter ego, the man he would have become had he stayed in the city. “Horror, with the sight, had leaped into [his] throat, gasping there in a sound he couldn’t utter; for the bared identity was too hideous as his.” The ghost in 45 Years isn’t the one in the attic or the crumped, black-and-white photo. It’s Kate herself.