What does a movie about an elderly straight couple nearing its 50th anniversary have to do with gay life?
In the year of the Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling that made gay marriage the law of the land, gay director Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years puts a panicky response on the screen. The shaky, precarious marriage of Geoff and Kate Mercer (Tom Courtney and Charlotte Rampling), in the Norfollk, England, presents the long-standing heterosexual ideal of matrimonial commitment. This retired couple illustrates the social institution of which gay Americans now partake—that Obergefell v. Hodges suggests defines the gay desire for social equality.
Haigh first presents Geoff and Kate’s individuality (she’s a slim, agile matron at ease in her suburban world; he’s rather frail, sickly, and intellectually preoccupied). This isn’t a greeting-card nuptial but a coolly-viewed alliance of post-sexual revolution veterans. Since Geoff and Kate are children of the 1960s, several decades of seismic lifestyle changes are commemorated in the pop records Kate selects to be played at their anniversary party: “Happy Together,” “I Only Want to Be With You,” “Young Girl,” “Your Precious Love,” “Go Now,” and the imperishable “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” as recorded by The Platters are virtually a template of the film’s plot. Those classic tracks provide a guide to the emotional complexity of once radical, newly-learned values that are the basis of the Mercers’ relationship.
Until reality sets in, complicating their previously unquestioned, romantic assumptions. Adapting the short story “In Another Country” by David Constantine, Haigh makes the scarifying proposition that Geoff and Kate are not happily married. The problems that beset their quaint, well-managed home life are presented as universal—the difficulties that gays, who are new to marriage and flushed with newlywed excitement, have not yet considered but probably, inevitably will. That’s the scary part of 45 Years.
Through the emotional telescope of nearly a half-century of loving, forgiving and compromise beyond the attraction of sex, Haigh looks to the future of gay marriage. It contrasts the view of present-day gay life as seen in his previous feature, the hook-up movie Weekend (2010), and the two seasons of Looking, his HBO lifestyles series.
With the notable exception of Richard Burton and Rex Harrison in the 1969 Staircase, there have been few movies that explore the emotional depths of gay relationships. Haigh’s method is dispassionate in the indie-film mode. This makes 45 Years rather bland compared to the psychodynamics of traditional melodrama. Indie directors (and audiences) are accustomed to observing calm objectivity (as during the anniversary party); but this can also seem remote from past.
What’s best here is Courtney’s expressive reserve recalling his fey role in The Dresser and Rampling’s vulnerability—a new side from her usual bitch-goddess roles. (She’s always suggested Lauren Bacall but with acting chops—as in her finest performance as the “monster” in Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime). Both of these underrated actors bring needed showmanship to Haigh’s illusion of real-time naturalism. One reviewer came up with the puerile notion that the film is “a study in time and how it ruins us.” Fact is, Haigh doesn’t make good use of time; Looking’s most successful moments benefited from him being forced to follow HBO’s commercial formula.
Ironically, it is through 45 Years’ heterosexual formula and allegory that Haigh comes closest of any current English language filmmaker to recalling gay culture’s former skepticism about marriage as a bourgeois institutional trap. It cannot be denied that in the face of the contemporary rush to sign-up and put a ring on marriage equality, 45 Years refuses offering a gift registry but something more daunting instead.
45 Years is currently in theaters. Watch the trailer below: