Raymond Carver's short stories had a great way with characters and small, poignant moments. From the naturalist dialogue with all the boring bits still in, to the modest scope, focused in tautly on quiet transformative seconds, Carver's whole catalogue bears the same hallmarks as Andrew Haigh's films. For both of these exceptional storytellers, the narrative restraint actually works to heighten the impact—it's because the stories are so personal that we feel them so strongly. Most Carver stories have similar subject matter (working class people, alcoholism, banal social interaction, depression) and nearly all of his stories tap into a uniquely American ennui that gives them a portion of empathetic gut punch. My favorite is actually one that's somewhat atypical for him. So Much Water So Close To Home follows woman whose husband goes on a canoeing trip with his friends, gets drunk, and discovers the drowned body of a teenage girl. But what makes it exciting is that the constrained perspective—through the wife rather than the husband—means that we can't be sure what really happened. There's an element of doubt, even suspicion, which gives the whole narrative a touch of Hitchcockian suspense.
Director: Andrew Haigh
Producer: Tristan Goligher
Writers: Andrew Haigh, David Constantine (short story)
Cinematographer: Lol Crawley
Editor: Jonathan Alberts
Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, Dolly Wells
Genre: Drama / Romance
Premiere: February 6, 2015 – Berlin
US Theatrical Release: December 23, 2015
US Distributor: Sundance Selects
Andrew Haigh's newest, 45 Years, takes off from a similar setup, though it's own ennui is more continental. Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are planning a party for their 45-year wedding anniversary. But a week before the event, Geoff receives a letter informing him that a body has been found in a glacier of the Swiss Alps belonging to Katja, a woman he loved before he ever met Kate. The emotional turmoil caused by this letter is staggering—Geoff becomes completely fixated on Katja, and imagining how his life would have turned out had she not met this untimely demise. He takes up smoking again and begins behaving in peculiar ways, distancing himself from Kate and his friends, all as a part of the lament he feels again for his young love. Kate, for her part, tries to be supportive but is also affected by a bubbling jealousy for a woman who's been dead for half a century. Geoff has steadily downplayed the seriousness of his relationship with Katja and the shock of the revelation seems to have only sharpened over time.
Perhaps the most moving moment comes early in the film, when Geoff imagines seeing her again, "How strange that would be, her looking like she did and me looking like this." It ties up so succinctly how he feels this loss as something that weighs on him in the present day, and how his whole perspective is irrevocably shifted. Suddenly, on some level, the last 45 years have become less important than the time he spent with Katja. In imagining his aged frame next to her frozen one, Geoff can't help but imagine being young again and doing it all over. Kate, being introduced to this secret for the first time, is pathological in her response. She needs to learn more about Katja, even if she knows that doing so will hurt her deeply. She wants to support Geoff in what he's going through, but at the same time, doing so weighs on her heavily.
And like in a Carver story, the quiet moments are the most engrossing. Geoff's obsession is complete, and Kate can read it on his face. He develops a new interest in global warming, but really he just wants another excuse to read and think about the alpine glaciers that have melted to reveal the Katja's body. Kate's perspective is even more compelling than Geoff's. She walks through a public square running errands before the party and a young canvasser asks if she has a few minutes to talk about a charity. She rebuffs him politely, but the weight of her refusal seems to say that to do so would break her, that her limit has been reached so fully and exhaustively that she couldn't bear to talk about a charity without breaking into tears. There are a few dust ups between the two, but really the film is at its strongest when Kate and Geoff politely and quietly experience each other's parallel and time-strengthened melancholies.
The film is over in a mere 95 minutes, but the feelings we go through with these characters seem to last a lifetime. We imagine Geoff as the young Marxist and can see what Kate saw in him—the passion that enlivened him. For Geoff we can see how his fixation is flawed, his deep love for this woman colored by a love for his lost youth. We see Kate and Geoff experience their lives together—their dogs, a muted disappointment at their choice to not have children, a loneliness that grew as their lives pulled away from their friends who did have children, but mostly we see the quiet, slow-built resentment they feel for each other for the lives they could have lived. By the final, heart wrenching shot . . . but no, I've said too much. Suffice it to say, it is moving.
Both leads are terrific. Courtenay plays the all-consuming focus that takes over Geoff with perfect subtlety; Geoff's attempts to hide his obsession in order to spare Kate's feelings are strong enough to be believable but still fully transparent to us and to Kate. And Rampling, on her part is masterful. Despite the idiotic comments she made this week, she turns in a terrific performance, plumbing emotional depths that surpass the English language's ability to describe feelings. It's hard to remember a character whose inner life was so comprehensible, so complex, or so intense. Let's all hope the Academy wises up and stiffs her on awards night—nobody who spits out this kind of racist hooey deserves to be honored with the biggest prize in the business—but she is undeniably phenomenal. Maybe, as Katherine Hempburn famously said, "acting is the perfect idiot's profession."