What makes a ghost story is known to us in that subconscious way we also know the sound of a nursery rhyme or Christmas carol when we hear one. We may have no idea how to explain the constituent parts of these things, or how these elements combine to achieve the desired result. It’s something deeper than that: a feeling rather than a true intellectual acknowledgement. Perhaps this is why Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years (2015) feels so melancholy. Everything about the film on paper would suggest a Mike Leigh-esque kitchen sink drama about an older couple negotiating a difficult week before the party celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary. And yet, the spectre of a different kind of story is palpable: never directly addressed, but lurking just outside of every frame.
From the first scene to the last, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) is a haunted man. During his 45 years of loyal marriage to Kate (Charlotte Rampling), the topic of his previous partners has rarely been discussed, and if it was, it was only the necessary details at the beginning of their relationship. Geoff receives an unexpected letter informing him that his previous girlfriend’s body has been found, frozen in the icy glacier she fell into back in 1962. Sitting at the kitchen table with him, Kate does her best to support him, but what follows in the next 90 minutes is the gradual erosion of her willingness to help, her gradual realisation that Katya’s ghost hasn’t just arrived into their lives now, but has been haunting their marriage ever since she and Geoff met.
As the days count down to the impending anniversary celebration, the mornings are awkward and the evenings drawn to a close by Geoff speaking about Katya. He is initially withdrawn, coming to terms with the new information, but is eventually overcome with the need to describe more details about his relationship to her, and how she died. He is newly possessed by her memory, and the haunting sense of dread about the life they could have led together if the accident didn’t happen. He is clearly trying to be tactful with his wording, but what cannot be hidden any longer is that this old relationship was more important to him than he ever let on. When pressed by an increasingly jealous and frustrated Kate, he confesses that he would have married Katya if things would have been different. Geoff is so consumed by curiosity and grief regarding what could have been that he becomes strangely single-minded in his routines: trawling through folders and cases in the attic, walking like a zombie, barely interacting with others and yet catching the early bus to town to ask the travel agent about flights to Switzerland so he can see the body.
Shot on location in Norfolk, the film’s dramatic moments are interspersed with a series of static exterior shots of the flat, expansive landscape around the Broads. Kate and Geoff live on the outskirts of Norwich, with the hauntingly bleak fields and waterways shrouded in mist. This filming was completed in spring, with fresh cow parsley visible along the verges of the narrow lanes, but last year’s beech leaves cling on in the hedges along with the husks of hogweed and teasel. The ghosts of last year’s harvest, last year’s lively abundance are clinging on in the margins of these establishing shots.
Kate can be seen walking Max the German Shepherd each morning, with Geoff nowhere to be seen. Despite her confident strides and obvious familiarity with the area, there is a vulnerability to her through the framing of these shots. The landscape stretches out in all directions and her path across it is straight. She is a small figure against those large skies and the expanse of the reedbeds or cornfields. It’s subtle, but the repeated reminders that this story (for the most part) takes place in an isolated area hint at an unspoken danger: their retirement years can be lived-out here without the social-policing of busier places. It’s like they are hiding away, or have been isolated by something they cannot speak about. This is a place that has forgotten the rest of the world is out there.
After each dog walk, we see the same process take place: Kate steps inside, removes her coat, then the wooden door creaks closed. Each time the same details are given the same attention, drawing our gaze to the cracks around the doorframe or the effectiveness of the latch, and we can’t help but ask, is this where the danger will come from? Seeing the same details repeated, we are hooked, just waiting for one of these details to be altered in an unsettling way. Despite its cleanliness, the house harbours this brooding sense of dread. However, the real question is whether the catalyst for drama is outside, waiting to enter their lives, or, as in the very best horror movies, if it’s already living among them, within the house itself.
There are a number of shots that seem to set up a jump scare that never comes: Kate staring wistfully out of the window, Kate deep in thought by the mirror. And yet the frame is never penetrated by the ghost. We are made to wait for the big reveal. The ghost is a presence, a memory, a fear, and it has possessed Geoff, steering his daily thoughts and actions towards the brutal, sudden killing of a marriage. Or, given the film’s ambiguous ending, at least the killing of the emotions and associations Kate had based her marriage on up to this point.
The scene with the most direct connotations to a horror film is the one that takes place when Kate is alone in the house. With Geoff away at a work get-together, she knows she can explore the attic where he’s been secretively busying himself throughout the week. It would be possible to overlay the existing film with a horror soundtrack and it would be rightly terrifying. In the low light of a dull day, Kate stares at the loft hatch. The dog barks, urging caution. She pulls down the ladder, and we can tell this is not her usual domain. With difficulty she secures it and begins to climb, the dog barking more frantically. She disappears into the darkness, fumbling for a light, willing herself to have the courage to expose whatever it is up there that’s been tormenting her.
She searches the dark corners of the attic space: she finds keepsakes and scrapbooks from Geoff’s relationship with Katya. Evidently forgotten about (even by Geoff) until the letter prompted him to look again. In the scrapbook are rail tickets, pressed flowers from the Swiss Alps, a note to commemorate Katya’s birthday in Geoff’s slightly childish handwriting. But it is not enough. Kate wants to confront the ghost. And, in a trope utilised so effectively in David Lowery’s A Ghost Story, this is literally played-out through the use of a draped sheet.
Kate’s fingertips touch the coarse fabric hanging from one of the wooden supports below the roof. She knows that she’s found what she’s looking for. She steps further into the darkness there and finds an old projector, loaded with slides. The séance begins without melodrama: lights are dimmed, the relics of the dead are brought into focus, and there, amongst the fibres of the old sheet is Katya. It takes Kate’s breath away, but as she recovers herself, she clicks for the next slide, and then the next, each one exposing more intimate photos of the woman who has haunted their marriage in unexpected ways: the lack of photos in the house, their choice of dogs over the years, where Geoff wanted to go on holiday. As Kate studies each photo, more uncanny features emerge, such as the similarities of their names, and hair colour, and facial features. But, as is the case with all true ghost stories, the half-forgotten souls tormenting the protagonists are not malicious, but simply sad, and troubled about the lives they never got to live. The final photo Kate will look at provides the most hurtful detail of all: she and Geoff have no children, no grandchildren to spoil and brighten their days. What seemed like a mutual decision decades ago is now seen in a new light: perhaps Geoff’s adamance that they not have children was because he’d already been through the trauma of losing one: Katya was pregnant when she died.