The Past is Another Country: Director Andrew Haigh on 45 Years
Andrew Haigh, director of fine-grained romance Weekend, delivers another devastating relationship drama with 45 Years. We speak to him about the film's powerhouse leads, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, and keeping his audience at arm's length
Andrew Haigh, director of Weekend and creator of HBO series Looking, is discussing Charlotte Rampling, the leading lady in his latest film, 45 Years. "I was terrified when I first met her," he confesses when we speak to him ahead of the firlm's UK premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival. "You know, she’s Charlotte Rampling. You feel like she’s going to be incredibly intimidating, because in so many of her performances there is this fierce strength." After the filmmaker began working with Rampling, however, he realised this steely quality is really a kind of truthfulness. "That’s what’s so interesting about her as a person, and what I love about the way she performs, is that she invites you in to see what’s happening, but then she pushes you away. It’s like she’s saying, ‘You can know me, but I’m only going to let you know a little bit about me. I’m going to keep some things hidden.’ And that felt really interesting as a performer."
This slightly standoffish quality chimes with Haigh’s approach to filmmaking. He specialises in relationship dramas that refuse to be cloying, with a style that's laid back and uningratiating. And, like Rampling, Haigh doesn't let the audience in on everything his characters are feeling; we realise they are going through some emotional turmoil, but we don’t necessarily understand why. "What’s left unsaid is so important to me," he explains. "I feel like cinema has the power to work on an incredibly emotional level with an audience, but you have to help the audience get to that level. That often means not giving them too much, and giving them a little bit of work to do within the film can have a greater emotional effect later on."
It’s a technique that pays dividends in 45 Years. Based on David Constantine's short story In Another Country, the film centres on a comfortably well-off couple, Kate (Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay), who are about to celebrate 45 years of marriage. It opens with the arrival of a letter delivering a bombshell (in both senses of the word): Geoff’s first girlfriend, Katya, who disappeared while walking in the Alps 50 years ago, has been discovered. The kicker is that her body has been perfectly preserved in the ice – "like something in the freezer," notes Geoff, whose memory of Katya has stayed similarly fresh. Soon he’s scrambling around in the loft in the middle of the night pawing over old photos of his lost love, leaving Kate feeling like it’s her turn to slip into a crevasse.
Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) look across the "absolutely desolating" Norfolk Broads in 45 Years
What gives the film its power is Haigh’s instinct to resist melodrama. Kate clearly resents the hold this long-dead woman has over her husband, but Haigh chooses to show the foundations of the relationship cracking through the subtlest of means. "What I want the film to do is for you to watch it, then I want you to think about it the next day; I want it to linger," he says. "I want [the audience] to be like, 'OK, how would I cope in that situation, or what in my life has come up from watching that film?'"
This approach gets the seal of approval from Constantine. "While watching Andrew’s film, I was interested very much in the way that fiction and film operate very differently," explains the author. "The couple in my story are of a different social class to those in the film, and they’re actually older too, so they’re less able to say what’s happening to them, so the narrative voice is doing all that. Whereas in the film you have an awful lot of silence, but the actors have these extraordinarily expressive faces. That’s one of the chief differences [between the mediums]: the characters don’t need to articulate what’s happening to them, it’s all there in the faces, in the body language." When the film had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, Darren Aronofsky's awards jury concurred with Constantine's assessment of the leads, handing Silver Bear acting prizes to both Courtenay and Rampling.
The reason Haigh was drawn to casting the pair was twofold. Firstly, despite each having careers spanning over 50 years, they both bring an enigmatic quality to the screen. "What I liked about both Tom and Charlotte is they’re known, and they’ve both done a lot of really interesting work, but they’re not everywhere," he explains. "You don’t see them on TV all the time or in lots and lots of films, so there’s a lot of mystery about both of them as actors. And I think that of Charlotte especially – most of her work has not been in England." At the same time, however, the relatively small bodies of work they do have are so iconic that it feels like we have a shorthand to their characters’ history. "There’s a scene in the film when they’re talking about dancing when they were in the 60s and when they first met," recalls Haigh, "and in my head I can just picture Tom in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and I can picture Charlotte in some of her films – it’s like their real life past in a way feeds into the film. They were, in a way, products of the late 50s and 60s, and that kind of energy and excitement of youth, and I think that helps the film a lot."
“What I liked about both Tom and Charlotte is there’s a lot of mystery about them as actors" – Andrew Haigh
Haigh shouldn’t be short-changed when it comes to praise, though. He deftly marshals the tension of this crumbling relationship through sound and image. Like in Weekend, there is no score. Music in the film comes instead from the characters’ environment, their radios and records. "I want the music to come out of a character, I suppose," notes the director. And what these characters are listening to (Happy Together, Why Don’t You Tell Me, Tell It Like It Is, Go Now) provides a wry running commentary on the state of their marriage. But, more importantly, by eschewing score Haigh avoids spoon-feeding the audience. "I want the music to be embedded into the world rather than to be put on top of it all to elicit or force an emotion in the audience." His use of framing and image is similarly objective: "I don’t like to cut that much," he explains. "A lot of shots are left wider than would perhaps be normal and I don’t resort to going into closeups to create the emotion. I want it to be clear what the point of view of the film is, but at the same time I want to make you kind of lean in a little bit more."
The Norfolk setting, a change from the source material, which is set in North Wales, also gives the story subtle resonances. Through Geoff’s eyes, its landscape becomes a metaphor for his marriage. "I love the idea that his past with Katya was set in the mountains of Switzerland," says Haigh, "and with Kate he's settled in the flattest part of the UK." When Constantine heard about the change in setting he had his doubts, but they vanished when he saw the movie. "I wondered how it would work, but it worked terribly well, I think," says the author. "All the busyness of Norwich, with him and her wandering around in it rather lost, and also the Norfolk Broads, they looked absolutely desolating – they were flat, misty and obviously cold. It was a wonderful transposition." The Broads’ beautiful bleakness were also part of the appeal for Haigh. "There’s something about the horizons out there," he says. "I lived there for a couple of years up in Norwich, and they’re quite isolating, those landscapes, because you just see forever, and I think that’s quite a scary prospect sometimes. It just made sense to me emotionally."
45 Years has not been universally celebrated. Up until this point, Haigh’s films and TV work have concerned the lives and loves of young homosexual men. This story about a middle-aged heterosexual couple has left some of his gay fans a bit miffed. "There are some people who are like, ‘I can’t believe you’ve turned your back on the gay community.’ But then, of course, you have people who are furious with me for Looking for representing the gay community in the wrong way. So you sometimes can’t win." On the surface, Weekend may seem a completely different prospect to 45 Years, but Haigh doesn’t see it that way. "I still feel like both films are about how our relationships define us and how we use them to define us. And what they can mean in our lives and how we struggle within them to keep our identity, to work out who we are, and how we have to compromise within certain relationships. So they seem oddly similar to me."
45 Years is released 28 Aug by Curzon Film World
David Constantine's short story collection 45 Years: Selected Stories is released 27 Aug by Comma Press, along with his novel The Life-Writer