In 1999, comic book writer Gail Simone noticed that his peers had a tendency to use the tragic deaths of female love interests as plot devices to incite male heroism. He calls this contrivance the “Woman in the Refrigerator.” The name originates from a 1994 Green Lantern comic, in which Kyle Renner returns to his apartment to find his girlfriend dead, mangled, refrigerated. The chilled body sends him justice-bound to destroy her killer.
Andrew Haigh’s captivating third feature film, 45 Years, also begins its trajectory with the discovery of a frozen woman. Geoff and Kate Mercer (Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling), a childless couple, are taking tea in their kitchen. It’s a Monday, time indeterminate, given that they’re both retired, and that Norwich, England, where they’ve made their home, is permanently frosted with a dense fog. Geoff opens a letter. Through his half-remembered German he makes out its meaning and announces it to his wife: his lover of 50 years ago, Katya, has been found in a glacier in the Swiss Alps. She died in 1962, when she was 27, quite horribly and accidentally. She fell through a crack in the rock while the two were hiking through the mountains toward Italy—Geoff had only heard her scream. This moment of contact between earth cycles and human cycles causes a rift in Geoff and Kate’s relationship, which becomes more pronounced and deforming as the film builds up to its finale: the Mercers’ 45th wedding anniversary party.
The villain in this story is time, its ruins and returns. The horror that gives chase is just nature running its course—perhaps with a touch of anthropogenic disturbance. Kate grabs Geoff a dictionary, and he explains the snow has melted due to global warming, allowing a hiker to see clear through the ice. What’s unclear is when or if they’ll be able to get her out. “The ice is saturating, building up like a dam, waiting, waiting, waiting. It’ll come down like a tsunami,” says Geoff.
Lines like these betray the film’s origins as a short story—David Constantine’s “In Another Country.” It’s a spartan tale, hewn from a few gorgeously thematized natural images, pure as glacial ice. (Listen to Constantine read it to you, below, in his biscuit-dry voice and you’ll especially get what I’m driving at.) Many of these images were translated, in some cases word-for-word, into the screenplay. It’s usually a seamless leap. But there are exceptions, as when Geoff compares Katya to a rare violet flower that grows through the cracks in the mountain ice. It feels like the old woman-in-the-icebox trick, only she’s been preserved to supply florid metaphors, not just plot twists.
The film’s narrative wields Katya’s image like a secret weapon—and so does Geoff. Haigh, in a recent interview with NPR, seemed to confirm as much: “I think for Geoff…it’s less even about this woman and this girl that he loved, but about who he was at that point and what he wanted his life to be,” he says. Geoff fights time by collapsing it. Katya’s body, stopped like a broken watch at 27, becomes his new point of temporal orientation and fixation.
But Kate, in her loose gray sweaters and skinny jeans, is very much alive. She’s subtly domineering, taking pride in her taste and her command of trivia as she plans her and her husband’s anniversary party, prepares his tea. Her role, lovingly accepted, is as entertainer and caretaker of Geoff, who was seriously ill only a few years earlier and is quite a bit more daft than she. He’s sort of adorable, blundering, childlike, and picking up smoking again, whereas she is generous, accommodating. (I love the word the Brits use—“rearrange”—for “change plans”; she says it a lot.)
As the film wears on, Geoff drifts from her, into his memories of youth and of Katya. He begins going to their attic to look through old pictures of her on his projector. Meanwhile the fullness of his relationship with Katya and her ghost begins to surface. Kate knew he had dated her, but not the manner in which she died, or that their attic had become a shrine to her—and there’s more than that, which I won’t reveal. Under the stress, Kate—the grande dame of the production—begins to crack. Rampling’s face traces the emotional seepage expertly and with beauty. Fear will suddenly flash across her composed expression, or her voice will descend sharply into her throat in the middle of a word. These moments become important because her face pronounces them.
Over the course of 45 Years, Haigh uses photography to maximum effect. Photography takes on a large, ghostly presence in the couple’s shared space. In contrast to Geoff carefully preserving the image of Katya, the couple has kept no pictures of their life together. They’ve neither offspring nor reproductions. The first thing we hear in the film, during the opening credits, is a projector slowly clicking away—only the sound of watching, a barren screening.
Record keeping also plays a prominent role in Haigh’s second film, and first commercial success, Weekend (2011). The film follows two gay men in their 20s in Nottingham, who meet at a club and surprise themselves when they fall in love over the course of a couple days. The morning after their first night together Glen (Chris New) immediately whips out a tape recorder and demands that Russell (Tom Cullen) describe their night “for an art project.” The tape, along with other personal records both men keep of sex and romance, end up lacing the two together. Of course by the end of the film the relationship still has so much to do, so much time.
Photographs freeze, but they also keep track of time, and of change. Like satellites that monitor the melting glaciers over decades of deterioration, they are capable of eliciting serious conclusions from their viewer. And their absence begs questions. How well can we ever know the people we love? Can the passage of time make what we do not know bearable? These thoughts seem to hang in Kate’s eyes as she climbs the ladder to her husband’s attic of photographs toward the end of the film. He’s out and she’s spying, so silent you can hear the gusts of wind outside, like a tape played backwards.