45 years of marriage, to some, would be considered a life sentence. An experience genuinely akin to imprisonment, trapped in the confines of a box, albeit a nicely furnished one, for the best part of half a century. But for Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay), it seems something about the gentle routine of their quiet, paired lives suits them both, pottering in a substantial Norfolk house, the ticking of the grandfather clock a subtle soundtrack, marking each day.
Over the course of the week leading up to their 45th wedding anniversary celebrations, (Geoff “upstaged” their more conventional attempt five years previous with a heart bypass), just a minute of their languid retired lifestyle is somewhat upturned by a letter. A frozen body has been discovered, perfectly preserved in the ice of an Alpine glacier. The body of Geoff’s first love, Katya.
As each day passes, Geoff becomes more and more entangled in this disturbance from the past: secret trips into the loft at three a.m., walks into town alone, bouts of sadness mid-conversation. When the pair’s simultaneous resort to their contraband cigarettes hits, you know something has changed between them.
It’s a definite shame the film’s portrayal of ‘the older couple’ has not been offered to the wider audience (actors actually cast as their actual ages). Charlotte Rampling seems to exude an ageless quality, lightly skimming between old and young, old and young. In some scenes, it is near impossible to comprehend her true age, dancing and laughing with Geoff in the living room, like two infatuated teenagers. Yet in others, it feels as though the weight of all Kate’s years drop, suddenly heavy on body and mind.
Director Andrew Haigh displays his mastery of what-is-not-seen. The favoured two-shots of the couple don’t always come close enough for detailed facial expressions, gauging emotion through their stance and distance, controlling our access. Like Katya, now at the edge of their day-to-day existence, the camera, long and enduring, cuts cautiously, often watching from afar. It at once holds a subtle theatricality in the lingering close ups and a painterly filmic feel in the misty wides of the Norfolk broads. Even this long-dead woman, with just a name to define her, is never fully revealed, and you get that almost horror-esque sense of the unspoken antagonist slowly pulling apart the thread weaving them together.
It’s the same with the dialogue. While masterly crafted, its used sparingly to explain, but luxuriously to chat, painting pictures of the past where their lack of photographs cannot visually fill the gaps. We know the two women’s names are obviously similar, but the detail is never touched upon, skipped over as if both of them know Kate is a replacement of what once was or what could have been.
Culminating in their much-planned anniversary party, surrounded by family and friends, you never focus so much on the two of them as in those scenes. While characters come and go throughout, chatting and driving and aiding plans, the centre of everything is entirely them. The waves of intimacy and silent bitterness ebb and flow with more intensity each day.
And just to heighten this haunting spark of antipathy between them, the film ends with no clear reconciliation. Katya’s roots are planted too deep and no one, not even Kate, can know whether that tree will ever be felled.