Year Released: 2015
Directed by: Andrew Haigh
Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay
(R, 93 min.)
“That desert of loneliness and recrimination that men call love.” Samuel Beckett
How much do you tell your bride – or groom – about that special someone in your life before you met? All the intimate details, or just a brief sketch, off hand and muted? Apparently not everyone has the same answer.
But who would have thought it could so rupture a union that has lasted nearly a half-century? By that time wouldn’t all those adolescent insecurities and obsessions have drifted away? But not so for Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay), the seemingly settled English couple getting ready to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary.
The film begins with a brief sketch of their daily routine. Kate returns from walking their German Shepherd through the lonely fields that surround their English cottage just in time to greet the mailman, who happens to be one of her ex-students. He still calls her Mrs. Mercer. She reminds him to call her Kate. Perhaps she might not have invited that more intimate greeting had she known what he had just delivered to their mailbox.
It is merely a brown envelope addressed to her husband Geoff, but the package might as well been a letter bomb for all the damage it ultimately inflicts. But a letter bomb would explode suddenly and spread its damage immediately. This one teases us with its slow ruin.
Part of the dely is that the letter from Switzerland is in German, and Geoff has a hard time translating, but he finally pieces it together. The body of Katya, his German girlfriend who had fallen in to a crevasse when they had been hiking in the Alps over 50 years ago, has been discovered in a melting glacier.
Perfectly preserved, Katya is frozen in time at age 27.
At first Geoff seems more stunned and befuddled about the news than anything else.
They found her. You know who I’m talking about, don’t you?
Implicitly reminding Kate that he had not kept secret the incident or the relationship, which had occurred several years before he even met Kate.
She surely cannot be annoyed by something that happened before they had even met, a rational Kate tells him that evening, but something in her expression casts doubts.
Doubts that are only exacerbated when Geoff takes up smoking again, and wanders up to the attic at night.
“I’ve found a picture of her,” he tells Kate, who is waiting below the attic pull down staircase.
“No,” she replies. “You went looking for it.”
And Geoff’s obsession seems contagious. Before long, Kate is wandering up to the attic, perusing old scrapbooks from the hiking expedition, and even setting up a slideshow of the trip in the darkened loft. What she sees unnerves her.
Suddenly, this ghost, this fifty-year-old frozen ghost, has created a chasm as deep and deadly as the one that took Katya’s life decades ago.
Director Andrew Haigh, who also wrote the screen adaptation, tells his story with an economy of detail. Little actions, such as when Kate turns over in bed to face away from Geoff, tell us more than words could ever say.
Perhaps one reason Charlotte Rampling has been nominated for the Oscar for Best Actress is the way she lets her emotions wash over her face. There are no tears, not even eyes welling up with them, no real frowns or grimaces. Just a slight insecure tilt of the head, a distant look in her eyes as she looks off into the distance.
The German girl, Katya, or “my Katya” the phrase Geoff uses that so carelessly wounds Kate, makes her rethink all those 45 years in another way. Is her English Kate a not quite perfect substitute for the German Katya? Her dark-haired beauty a second best choice for the real thing, the haunting loveliness now ageless in frozen splendor? Even Geoff’s and Kate’s succession of German Shepherds are now perhaps suspect, too. Gone now is Kate, the rational, loving wife, replaced by an almost bitter stranger, struggling with her own devastation and loss.
We never talked about it in all the years we have known each other, and it has tainted everything.
The film is told mostly from Kate’s point of view, and it is ironic that we don’t necessarily agree with that perspective. There was no infidelity here. If anything, Geoff is more like a widower who merely neglected to bother his new wife with intimate details of his first love. The impulsive Yank in me wants to yell to Kate, “Get over it.”
The only thing that makes me hesitate is the niggling idea that the marriage is really a fragile one already, and this dark missive is only rattling an already faulty structure. One built on sand and not rock. The film doesn’t really give us much to go on in that direction, though.
The lamented absence of photos the couple talks about, their childless state, the cause of which is never really addressed – only hint at something missing.
Perhaps Mick LaSalle says it best as he describes this “extraordinary dissection of a marriage, a remarkable iceberg of a film that shows just enough to imply the whole.”
They have been married for many years, and everything is fine, and yet something in their interaction seems ever so slightly off. They’re friendly, polite and respectful toward each other, not like a long-term couple, but rather like people sharing a vacation rental. Mick LaSalle
No, this is not a film for date night, and I would certainly not recommend it for Valentine’s weekend. It is an unflinching portrait of the tenuous underpinnings of even the most apparently settled and long-lived relationships.
Not to be missed by discriminating viewers.
Part of the ironic tension that anchors this film is Kate having to fix all the details for the elaborate 45th wedding anniversary bash while she ponders her longtime husband’s fixation on a lost love.
Worrying about canapés seems the least of her troubles. Let’s help her out with at least one choice, these delicious and authentic Maids of Honour English Tarts dating all the way back to Henry VIII. The very name brings forth images of gauzy pastel gowned damsels walking down the aisle in their matching satin shoes.
This recipe comes from Different Drummer’s own Appetite for Murder: A Mystery Lover’s Cookbook, complete with the British spelling of honour. They are light and delicious, just as my little cookbook would be as a Valentine gift for someone your love.
Maids of Honour Tarts
These little tartlets are said to have originated at the court of Henry VIII, when he chanced one day upon some of the Queen’s maids of honour eating cakes. Being famous for his voracity, he could not resist the temptation to try one himself, and found them so delicious he named them Maids of Honour. Still another legend says Ann Boleyn, then a maid of honour, invented the tiny tarts to win the love of Henry VIII.
1 1/3 cups bakers’ cheese
6 tablespoons softened butter
1 tablespoon brandy
2 tablespoons superfine sugar
1/4 cup ground almonds
Pinch of ground nutmeg
A few flaked almonds
8 ounces puff pastry, defrosted.
Roll the puff pastry out on a lightly floured board and use to line 12 lightly greased muffin-tin wells. Mix together all the remaining ingredients, except the flaked almonds, and spoon into the pastry cases. Sprinkle a few flaked almonds on each and then bake at 425 for 15-20 minutes until the pastry is golden brown and the filling is set.