“Are you here to see 45 Years?” the woman ahead of me in line at the theater asked.
“Yes. Are you?”
“No. I’m living it, don’t need a movie to tell me anything more. That’s not entertainment.” She bought a ticket for the movie Joy.
I am “living it,” too, albeit much more happily than she suggested she was. But I was very curious to see how an enduring 45-year commitment would be portrayed, whether or not it would ring true, and what it might have to tell me about my marriage at this stage of our lives.
As A. O. Scott writes in the New York Times, “45 Years [is] Andrew Haigh’s sensitive and devastating portrait of a long, happy marriage in sudden crisis.” Powerfully acted by Charlotte Rampling, 69, and Tom Courtenay, 78, the movie explores that “long, happy marriage” as we all might on the occasion of a 45th wedding anniversary, but then sabotages it by mixing satisfying memories of a life well-lived with wistful (for him) and threatening (for her) what-might-have-been’s. The “crisis” reveals an intimacy the couple no longer seems to experience despite their comfortable, enduring love. It is not the news itself that is so disturbing; it is how very alone both Kate and Geoffrey Mercer are as they negotiate it.
So that’s the plot and the dramatic arc, and I trust it doesn’t ruin the movie to say things seem to turn out all right on the screen.
For me, it’s that “all right” that was, to use Scott’s word, “devastating.” It is the suggestion that the aging marriage, like the aging woman and the aging man, is at its very best going to be comfortable and loving, and even if rich in understanding and forbearance, lacking in passion and intimacy, excitement and plans for the future. Moribund is the word that comes to mind.
Courtenay’s character has let himself go physically (his unshaven face, physical inactivity, return to smoking after bypass surgery) and withdrawn emotionally, and his wife of 45 years has accepted the decline and ignored its implications for their marriage; she adjusts, she goes on, it's good enough. Until it isn't. Here’s the thing: the plot crisis shows us that each of them has deep, strong emotions that they are no longer sharing with each other or using to build their life together as they age. For me, that’s the tragedy. That’s what’s haunting.
I think the movie gets almost everything right: the beauty and emotional power of Rampling’s 68 or 69 year-old face, Courtenay’s physically unattractive aging (oh, those tightie-whities), the sadly embarrassing uncertainty of sexual prowess after 60, the revisiting of decisions made over a course of a lifetime (having children, taking photos), the determination to overcome a health crisis, the consternation of caretaking, how fun it is to dance as if you were still 21, the implicit, enduring trust and care for one another after 45 years. And it’s that verisimilitude that gives me pause: Should 42 year-old Haigh’s, and/or 73 year-old David Constantine’s, (he’s the author of the short story In Another Country upon which the film is based), determination that the lasting, aging marriage is, in fact, moribund ring true, too? I hope not. I hope it's ageist fiction. I’m not ready to give up my Joy.