The Past that is not Past

By Tim Winterstein

The older I get, the more I realize just how unreliable my memories actually are. It is easy to assume without reflection that what we “remember” is true. Memento is one of the movies that first hinted to me that (even without a brain injury) what we think we remember is subject to so many contingencies that it’s hard to say what a memory actually is.

45 Years (2015; streaming on the Criterion Channel and for rent or purchase on Amazon Prime video) doesn’t examine the unreliability of memory, but what happens when buried memories from the past intrude on the present. It begins as Kate and Geoff are preparing for their 45th wedding anniversary—45Th because Geoff had been in the hospital when they were supposed to celebrate their 40th.

The film opens on their seemingly idyllic farm life and takes place over the week prior to their anniversary party. But when Kate returns from her walk, she finds Geoff reading a letter that opens a long-closed wound. Before they met, Geoff had been seriously involved with a woman named Katya, who had been killed in a freak accident on a hike in the Swiss Alps. But now, warming caused by climate change has melted the ice to the point where her body was discovered, frozen in time as she had been some 60+ years before.

Geoff seems to view it as a sort of curiosity, but the knowledge that Geoff had a lover before her needles and nags at Kate. Katya (a rival even in her name) is frozen as she was when Geoff knew her, while both Kate and Geoff have become old. It becomes worse when Kate discovers slides of Katya, including more shocking information that Geoff has never told her. For Geoff, it’s in the past. But for Kate, the past becomes ever more present.

When I told my own wife (of almost 18 years) about the plot, she immediately sympathized with Kate. So it’s not only a movie about memory and communication and jealousy, but a movie about one of the differences between the sexes. Communication is key, we say, papering over the difficulty of communication with a cliché. But real communication is impossible without charity. And even then, how well can we ever know another self-contained individual?

As Shakespeare teaches so well so often, miscommunication is far easier than real communication because of assumptions we already carry around with us. With only part of the picture, we fill in the rest with one possible version of the truth: ours. And 45 Years—which is, by any measure, a long time to be married—shows us that sometimes the ease of our communication with people we know well can be undone by even a single revelation. I thought I knew you, but now I’m not at all sure. Maybe what I thought I knew was only my version of the truth; but the truth has more and sharper angles than I had assumed.

45 Years is as fluid and subtle a marriage drama as I’ve seen, which makes the rocks hiding beneath the surface all the more apparent. Geoff decides he wants to learn more about climate change, but in the context it is the climate of their marriage that is changing or has changed. The uncovering of Katya’s body is, perhaps, only a symptom of long-ignored problems.

That is highlighted by two moments in the film. Kate says at one point that it’s “funny how you forget the things you like, that make you happy.” Later Kate says that she’s sorry she didn’t get Geoff anything for their anniversary. She was going to get him a watch and have it engraved, she says, but she couldn’t think of what to write (which is, perhaps, its own warning sign). Geoff says that he likes “not knowing the time.” For Kate, it’s a loss; for Geoff, the status quo is comfortable and good. But it is clear that the status quo has come to its end in a fatal collision at their anniversary party. As happens with any married couple, the words of Geoff’s speech at the party have far different resonances for the people listening than they do for Kate. And the song to which they danced at the beginning of their life together might well be the last song to which they dance.

With that, Andrew Haigh brings the film to an abrupt end. But I’ve come to appreciate abrupt, unresolved endings more than I used to. If the film has been good enough (and this one is), the ending will force you to work back over the whole movie in order to put the pieces together—much like looking back over 45 years of marriage, or over a whole life.