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45 Years and ‘In Another Country’: Layers and Fissures in Cinematic Adaptation

“It’s global warming.” In Andrew Haigh’s film 45 Years (2015), as in the story on which it is based, David Constantine’s “In Another Country,” a retreating glacier in the Swiss Alps serves as the structuring metaphor for a narrative centered on the relationship between a long-married British couple. Mr. Mercer receives a letter from Switzerland reporting that the body of his girlfriend Katya, who died decades earlier when she fell through a crevasse, has been exposed, frozen in glacial ice, intact.  Katya’s reappearance creates fissures of its own, baring emotions hidden beneath the seemingly placid surface of the Mercer marriage. The layers of snow and ice that form the glacier are an equally apt metaphor to describe the complex intermedial process of adaptation: Haigh’s cinematic recreation is overlaid on Constantine’s short story, which was inspired by a true story the author heard while on holiday in France. But the adaptive process works in reverse of glacial retreat, with both the story and film enhancing its source, each accumulation altering the delicate shape of character and theme, creating fissures between the literary and cinematic texts.  The most prominent of these shift the focus from Mr. Mercer to his wife, transforming Constantine’s story about memory’s traumatic power over a man into a cinematic meditation on the equally potent power of jealousy over a woman, while preserving intact a central and despairing insight about marriage: even couples in the most intimate relationships find it impossible to communicate their private thoughts and interior emotional states.  The film’s complex layering of image, sound, framing and performance, however, introduces ambiguity and provides openings for viewer engagement and reflection on not only the stability of marriage but meaning itself.

The glacier, so central to the narrative of the story and film, is a suggestive metaphor for the multilayered processes of adaptation at work in both texts. This metaphor of glacial accumulation can be added to the long and proliferating list of terms advanced in theoretical discussions of adaptation.  Robert Stam (and others) advanced “translation,” but added “reading, dialogization, cannibalization, transmutation, transfiguration and signifying” (62), as well as “selection, amplification, concretization, actualization, critique, extrapolation, analogization, popularization, and reculturization” (68).1 As Julie Sanders has noted, “the vocabulary of adaptation is highly labile,” appending still more terms: “variation, version, interpretation, imitation, proximation, supplement, increment, improvisation, prequel, sequel, continuation, afterlife, addition, paratext, hypertext, palimpsest, graft, rewriting, reworking, refashioning, re-vision, re-evaluation” (3).  At their root, however, these metaphors capture the essentially intertextual or intermedial nature of adaptation.  If, as Shannon Wells-Lassange and Ariane Hudelet have argued, “with a process as nebulous and heterogeneous as film adaptation, theory must arise from practice” (2), then it seems appropriate to adopt a metaphor derived from the texts that are central to this analysis.    

Stam’s observation that “film adaptations are […] caught up in the ongoing whirl of intertextual reference and transformation, of texts generating other texts” applies to 45 Years but its source text is equally layered. Haigh’s film has given Constantine, an award-winning British author, enhanced fame in Britain, while exposing him to North American audiences for the first time.2 “In Another Country” was first published in 2001 in the literary magazine, The Reader, and later in a collection of short stories, Under the Dam (Comma 2005).  It was reprinted In Another Country: Selected Stories (2015) to coincide with the film’s release in the UK.  The story’s title suggestively nods to Hemingway’s famous story with the same title, derived in its turn from Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (1589):

FRIAR BARNARDINE: Thou hast committed—

BARNABAS: Fornication—but that

was in another country: And besides,

The wench is dead. (4.1.42-45)

Certainly, Katya the dead “wench,” with whom Geoff fornicated in another country, can be uncovered here.  But no direct references to Marlowe’s play or Hemingway’s story are present in Constantine’s story, nor to “The Crystal Trench,” a 1959 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, based on A. E. W. Mason’s 1915 short story, which similarly features a youthful figure preserved in glacial ice after falling into a crevasse in the Swiss Alps.3 Such palimpsestic references rely on the reader’s memory, the receptive process of intertextuality that Linda Hutcheon has described (8). “Intermedial” may be a more appropriate term, for in interviews, the story’s author has alluded not to source texts but an image (and of a man, not a woman).  A poet, Constantine has said that he focuses each of his short stories on a concrete image, in this case the image of a mountaineer in his twenties, who had fallen down a crevasse in Chamonix in the 1930s. After seventy years, retreating ice exposed the man’s body and the son he had fathered before his death identified the body: “The shocking sight of his father—perfectly preserved in his prime, while he himself approached his eighties—tipped the son towards insanity.” Constantine said, “Everything I’ve ever written is based on a concrete image—and that young man frozen in the ice is particularly haunting” (qtd. in Shute).4

Such an arresting image would seem ripe for cinematic appropriation, but the film, like the short story, does not picture it—visually, at least.  Instead, both texts present the image as words, in the form of a letter, that is itself never presented directly, but only translated—from its original German—and reported in dialogue.5 Constantine’s story presents the letter’s arrival as disruptive to both marital routine and relations:

When Mrs. Mercer came in she found her husband looking poorly.  What’s the matter now? she asked, putting down her bags.  It startled him.  Can’t leave you for a minute, she said.  They’ve found her, he said. Found who?  That girl.  What girl?  That girl I told you about.  What girl’s that?  Katya. Katya? said Mrs. Mercer beginning to side away the breakfast things.  I don’t remember any Katya.  I don’t remember you telling me about a Katya.  I tell you everything, he said.  I’ve always told you everything.  Not Katya you haven’t.  She took his cup and saucer.  Have you finished here?  He had pushed them aside to make room for a dictionary. He was still in his dressing gown with a letter in his hand. (9)

Mrs. Mercer’s “What’s the matter now?” efficiently reveals preexisting frustration with her husband, as does her annoyed clearing of the dishes.  These palpable indicators of tired domestic routine are broken up by Mr. Mercer’s startling revelation of Katya’s discovery and his heartfelt assertion that he tells his wife “everything.” But the absence of quotation marks to delineate dialogue conceals the disjunctions between their emotional states and between superficial domesticity and the dormant past, the fissures opening in their fifty-year marriage.  The letter exposing them initially appears innocuous as well, held by the husband in his dressing gown at the dining table as on any ordinary Tuesday.  But its effects are apparent under the surface of their routine actions:

I couldn't finish my tea when I read the letter.  I see, said Mrs. Mercer.  It worried her.  Already it frightened her.  Quickly she cleared the table.  Excuse me, she said, while I shake the cloth. (9)

Short, simple sentences convey Mrs. Mercer’s unexpressed fear, so subtly inserted that they are almost lost under the flurry of the described action.  Constantine’s spare language disguises the impending emotional turmoil like the ice encasing Katya’s body. The two expose themselves at once to Mrs. Mercer:

What worried Mrs. Mercer suddenly took shape.  Into the little room came a rush of ghosts.  She sat down opposite him and both felt cold.  That Katya, she said.  Yes, he said.  They’ve found her in the ice.  I see, said Mrs. Mercer. (10)6

An emotional chill descends on both, though in different forms: Mrs. Mercer continues her routine, as though closed off like Katya in ice,7 and is glimpsed largely from the margins of the short story which focuses on Mr. Mercer, who, through memory is transported back to the Alps and to Katya, the accumulated years of his marriage to Mrs. Mercer gradually melting away in his effort to retrieve his twenty-year-old self:

All day in a trance.  Katya in the ice, the chaste snow drawn off her.  He cut himself shaving, stared at his face, tried to fetch out the twenty-year-old from under his present skin.  Trickle of blood, pink froth where it entered the soap.  He tried to see through his eyes into wherever the soul or spirit or whatever you called it lives that doesn’t age with the casing it is in. (10-11)

He seeks to return mentally to his youth and to Katya.  His youth, like hers, is preserved inside, trapped not by ice but his aged body and confining home.

While attentive to these details—the kitchen scene, the letter and conversation about Katya—the film adds layers of complexity by exploiting cinematic elements, especially mise en scene and sound, and shifting the point of view almost exclusively to Mrs. Mercer’s. The film, shot in 35 mm by cinematographer Lol Crawley, who garnered praise for his work on Mandela: The Long Walk (2013), opens on a long shot of Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) trailing the family dog across a vast, flat pastoral expanse, prefiguring both her growing isolation and the contrast between the couple’s home near Norwich and the itinerant adventures of her husband and Katya in the Swiss Alps. As the film cuts to her entering the home, she is pictured standing alone, at the kitchen sink, looking out the window with her back to her husband, Geoff (Tom Courtenay), who is off screen, heard but not seen until a later shot places both of them at the table discussing Katya.  Narrating the “anatomy” of this scene in The New York Times, Haigh said he used long unedited shots to establish their “gentle tenderness” in the kitchen before the “small bomb” of the letter disturbs it.  To establish the focus on events from Kate’s perspective, he noted that the camera moves with her, not Geoff (qtd. in Murphy).  In Haigh’s version, Kate displays none of Mrs. Mercer’s preexisting frustration or impending fear.  Instead, she recalls Katya and is initially willing to share her husband’s memories of her.  Mise en scene, rather than dialogue, conveys their emotional distance. 

In fact, the film stresses the couple’s marital harmony by timing the letter’s arrival to coincide with preparations for their forty-fifth anniversary party.  In the same scene, Kate enters humming The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” a song played at their wedding.  While in Constantine’s story Mrs. Mercer’s excursions are planned parts of her routine (Tuesday she meets with her club; Wednesday is library day), in Haigh’s film Kate’s trips to town center on plans for the anniversary party (checking on the party venue, visiting the florist).  Naturally, adaptations of short stories require expansion of the source text (Hutcheon 18, McFarlane 25), but “in the best cases,” as Stephanie Harrison argues, they do so to “extend, enhance, and elaborate on their sources” (xix).  Such is the case here, for the anniversary is a device for shaping viewer expectations about marriage, through the addition of two characters, friends Lena (Geraldine James) and George (David Sibley).  (The story, by contrast, features only three characters, the Mercers and a neighbor.)  As Geoff’s behavior changes during the days before the party, Lena offers an alternative explanation: she reports that her husband felt the pressure of expectations for their fortieth anniversary and jokes that she nearly divorced him.  Lena argues that men “see the world different[ly]” from women: they are obsessed with their legacy and it is women’s job to remind them what is really important, namely relationships.  The point of an anniversary, in Lena’s eyes, is to make men cry (while women hold it together).

Lena and George appear following a key conversation about glaciers between the Mercers over lunch.  Geoff recounts an alternative theory of glacial retreat: the glaciers are melting but the water is saturating the rock beneath, trapped as in a dam, until one day, without warning, it will collapse under the weight.  In the story, Mr. Mercer says, “They fear it will all come down at once one day,” musing “She’ll come down when the waters break with mud and rocks and anything human in the way of it will be wiped out.  But we shall be dead by then and turning in our own clay in the earth” (14). The metaphoric implications are more overt in the film: Geoff notes that Katya’s body might have come tumbling down over them like a tsunami, knocking over glasses at the table while gesturing to make his point.  Kate is startled by her cell phone ringing announcing Lena and George’s arrival, bringing the conversation to an abrupt end.  Shots of the foursome show the group chattering animatedly, with close up shots of Geoff disengaged and preoccupied.

Combined, these changes—to point of view and to the depiction of the Mercer marriage—add a dimension of ambiguity absent from Constantine’s story.   In it, Mrs. Mercer’s thoughts are presented several times but, in her absences from the home, the focus remains on her husband and his desire to retrieve memories and feelings of Katya:

Whatever is in there behind the eyes or around the heart or wherever else it is, whatever it is that is not the husk of us will cease when the husk does but in the meantime never ages, does it? Explain him otherwise his agitation when he thinks of Katya in the ice: her bodily warmth and merriment night after night as Mrs. Mercer in the wooden houses among flowers in the snow comes up in him, an old man near the end, inhabits him as thoroughly as does his renewing blood. (13)

His desire for youth is decidedly sexual.  By reviving his memories of Katya, he re-experiences the warmth of their sexual encounters.  In the short story, these take place exclusively in his thoughts, centered on Katya alone.  The film, by contrast, plays on the parallels between the two women, visually registering the tension within Geoff between the past and present incarnations of Mrs. Mercer.  Note that in Constantine’s story, Katya is Mrs. Mercer, a shadowy double of the present Mrs. Mercer.  In both the story and film versions, Mr. Mercer reveals that he has been sent the letter as Katya’s “next of kin,” for during their travels in then-staid Europe they passed themselves off to innkeepers as married, and Katya sported a wooden ring (a “curtain ring” in the story [12]).  In Constantine’s story, the present day (and actual) wife is never called by her first name until very near the end, but only “Mrs. Mercer.”  In the film, Kate’s name is the English variation of Katya, but misses the direct equivalence of Mrs. Mercer.  The two share physical parallels—in age, hair color—that the film exploits to register Mr. Mercer’s reviving sexual desire.  Kate and Geoff, sharing reminiscences of their own marriage, seek to recapture the past by dancing and then attempting to have sex.  In the film version, Mr. Mercer displaces his desire for Katya onto Kate, trying to revive physically the warmth he experiences only internally in Constantine’s story.  The attempt ends in failure.  While the scar from his open-heart surgery (a detail added in the film) provides one possible explanation, another presents itself: Geoff loses his erection after Kate says, “open your eyes,” presumably because the vision of the actual, aged Kate does not match that of the desired, youthful Katya preserved in memory and in ice—or with the youthful Kate whom he described as having been once “a knockout” (which viewers familiar with Rampling’s career as a model and actress in the 1960s might take as an extra-textual reference, as well).   But we cannot be sure for the film offers us no glimpse into Geoff’s thinking at this point, only his pained reaction.  The camera focuses on Kate’s face as she offers him reassurance and the viewer can only speculate—as she does.

Rampling has been praised for her empathetic performance as Kate and the film’s focus on her through mise en scene and close-up reaction shots leads viewers to adopt her point of view and subjective responses.8 In the film, as in the story, Geoff shares details of Katya’s death and their Alpine adventures through dialogue.  But his thoughts are opaque.  In fact, unlike Rampling, Courtenay is often absent from the frame or obscured, eliding Geoff’s subjectivity.9 When he is about to reveal he is Katya’s next of kin, Kate sits on the couch reading, in the left of the frame, while he is sitting in a chair watching her, on the edge of his seat, on the right, ready to move to join her (see Figure 1).  But his face is deliberately blurred, sustaining our focus on Kate on the cusp of his key revelation.  The most significant events relevant to his reaction to the letter occur out of frame, including his reading of the letter itself.  When Kate returns to find him reading a book, Geoff’s disembodied voice is heard but our sight of the man himself is blocked by the bookcase.  These obvious disjunctions visually register the couple’s separate emotional reactions to Katya but deny us access to Geoff’s.

45 Years and 'In Another Country': Layers and Fissures in Cinematic Adaptation Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1. Kate and Geoff in the living room. Note that Kate is in focus; Geoff is out of focus as though relegated to the margins.

This is most evident in the scene immediately following the couple’s failed attempt at sex.  Kate awakens to discover that Geoff has left the bed to climb up to the loft space in search of photos of Katya.  We see Kate by the ladder to the loft, demanding to see the picture he holds: “What’s in your hand?  Is it her?”  Close-up shots capture Kate’s agitation, but Geoff remains off camera.  Even the angle eliminates his perspective: we see Kate shot either at eye level or from a higher angle, but one not high enough to be Geoff’s aerial view from above her.  We do not see the photo itself, but only Kate’s reaction to Geoff’s words—“It doesn’t mean anything.  It’s just a picture”—before she retreats down the hallway to bed. 

By contrast, in Constantine’s story, the scene shows Mr. Mercer as he appears to Mrs. Mercer:

[She s]tood in her nightie at the foot of the ladder, cold even there, calling up to him till finally he showed himself, wrapped up and shivering, without his teeth, leaning over the hole, his face a blue grey with the cold and grief, he leaned down over the hole above her upturned face, its halo of thin silver hair, and tried to say nothing to worry about but couldn’t and made a gibbering noise, the photos clutched two-handed against his heart.  (15)

Mr. Mercer’s grief is visible—in his body, on his face, in his voice—as is the image of his retreat into the cold, the loft an icy space preserving Katya as she was in photos, the physical equivalent within the Mercer home of the glacier.  The text’s language enforces the parallels:  like the ice, the photos preserve Katya intact.  In the glacier she is “still there … just the way she was.  Twenty, in the dress of that day and age” (14).  The echoes are clear here: “In the photographs she was just as she was: slim, in a long skirt, smiling, her black hair in a curve around her cheek” (15).  He is retreating into the glacier by trips to the loft and into the photos, as Mrs. Mercer recognizes: “him burrowing back through the layers, him rooting through all their accumulations, to get back where he wanted to be, in the time before she was” (17).  As Katya had fallen through the crevasse in the ice to her death, he “fell back down the decades into the couple of months of summer in the Alps” (16).  The loft becomes the glacier:

The ladder to the loft was permanently down, encumbering the way into the little living room.  A breath of cold hung over the opening.  Or the warmth of the living space, being drawn up there, was converted into cold just above their heads. (16-17)

This image of the glacier above their heads recalls their conversation about the glacier’s waters, “waiting, like a dam” (14) before coming down on them, a reference underscored by the title of the short story collection where “In Another Country” made its first appearance: Under the Dam.

This multilayered equation of the loft with the glacier—snow melting to expose Katya in ice, Mr. Mercer’s retreat into the past to join her—is conveyed visually in the text, while ironically less through image in the film than through sound.10 As the couple discuss Katya, often at night, in bed, the noise of wind accompanies their conversation.  Initially, the winds appear as diegetic noise, with shots of swaying trees suggesting an actual, rather than symbolic, storm.  But the sounds of wind, layered with sounds of dripping water, become increasingly non-diegetic, divorced from the environment and linked only to Kate, suggesting her emotional disturbance. They appear as the aural equivalents of Mrs. Mercer’s intimations of her husband’s retreat.  Hearing him at first in the loft, she thinks to herself, “He’ll break his neck” (14); “He’ll freeze to death” (14).  She fears he will, in effect, fall back into the past and encase himself in ice with Katya.  The cinematic equivalent appears in the film, when Kate follows Geoff after he has left their bed and reaches up to the closed loft door.  As she extends her hand upwards, as though grasping for him, we hear sounds of whipping wind and dripping waters as we watch the shadow of her hand play before the closed door.  Absent of contextual anchors, the sounds appear as projections of Kate’s anxieties.

The same fierce winds appear in a daytime scene without equivalent in Constantine’s story.   We hear blowing winds as Kate, alone in their home, looks up at the loft door before deciding to climb up.  As she ascends the ladder, their German shepherd barks, as though in warning.  In the loft, Kate retrieves the suitcase containing Geoff’s scrapbook from his trip with Katya, before discovering a slide projector.  As she reviews the images of Katya, she occupies the left side of the frame, while the slides are projected onto a sheet hanging on the right (see Figure 2).   Kate appears side-by-side with Katya, enforcing the physical resemblance between the two, until Kate sees Katya’s pregnant belly.  The film had previously imbued photos with added significance: they are equated with children.  Over lunch, Lena shows Kate pictures of her granddaughter on her phone and Kate later comments to Geoff that they have no photos since they have no family of their own.  Her simultaneous discovery of the photos and pregnancy gains added thematic weight owing to the secrecy shrouding it: Geoff does not reveal Katya was carrying his child, nor does Kate discuss her discovery. 

45 Years and 'In Another Country': Layers and Fissures in Cinematic Adaptation Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Kate looking at a slide of Katya.

By contrast, in Constantine’s story, Mr. Mercer reveals the pregnancy to his wife directly:

One thing I didn’t tell you, Mr. Mercer said […] I was thinking in the night one thing I never told you.  Never told anyone come to that.  Not a living soul.  Nobody ever knew.  I’m the only one in the world who knows it even now, only one alive, I mean. […] She was going to have a baby.  My Katya was.  (16)

Rather than keeping it to himself, he shares with her a secret he has revealed to no one.  Rather than searching for a picture of a pregnant Katya, Mr. Mercer seeks out an image from a medical dictionary of a fetus at six weeks.  The discussion of their youthful “heedlessness” (17) that appears in both the film and story is linked to the pregnancy in the story only.  Rather than referring to the young couple’s disregard for their own safety as it does in the film, it refers to that of their child.  While in the film discussion, Geoff contends their journey did have a purpose, that he and Katya were “brave” for “turning their backs on civilization” in the early 1960s, in the story these words, spoken not aloud to Mrs. Mercer but by Mr. Mercer to himself, have a significantly different meaning:

the word brave came to mind when he thought of that quick seizing of a chance to spring up the minute the ice opened even only a little.  And that was how he thought of Katya and himself after all that time with Hitler where they’d come from and Mussolini where they were going to, up there wandering around and making a baby the minute they’d turned their backs on civilization. (18-19)

Their purpose had greater social consequence: to create new life in the space between regimes of despotism and death, like the frail flowers springing up through the ice.  Their sexual dalliances are acts of liberation against tyranny, rather than 1960s-style free love with only individual freedom from convention as its goal.  In the film, Kate points out the bankruptcy of such a purpose, asking, “What were you actually doing?  Just climbing up some bloody mountain … Chasing a girl who wanted to be chased.”

For both wives, cinematic and literary, the discovery of Katya’s pregnancy disturbs the apparently calm surface of domestic tranquility, but the two react in pointedly different ways.  Mrs. Mercer experiences distress but conceals it, at least in part.

[S]he wept to herself, for the unfairness.  Surely to God, it wasn’t much to ask, that you get through to the end and looking back you don’t fill with horror and disappointment and the hopeless wishful thinking?  All she wanted was to to be able to say it hasn’t been nothing, it hasn’t been a waste of time, the fifty years, that they amount to something, if not at child, a something made and grown between man and wife you could be proud of and nearly as substantial as a child. (17)

Like her husband, she looks back in time, not seeking to burrow through the accumulation of years but to preserve them.  There must be substance, and not waste, in their life together, in their shared experiences, the repeated Tuesdays and Wednesdays of their married life.  Thus, despite the rift between them, she preserves their routines: “They parted company; ate together, slept together, but were in separate circles” (16).  Immediately after receiving the news of Katya’s pregnancy, she broke with routine.  Constantine pictures her trying to continue eating “her toast and homemade damson jam” but eventually “her mouth had given up trying to eat,” and, while she takes “her own things to the draining board” she leaves “him sitting there with his” (16).  This subtle neglect of wifely duty stands out—as a rebuke to her husband but also for its isolation.  Afterward, “the mechanism of her love and duty” (17) returns. 

The film places more stress on accumulated time as validating marriage as “a something made and grown between man and wife.” The title 45 Years introduces both the film’s focus on time and the anniversary party as a means of evaluating marital worth and success.  The film makes the accumulation of time more overt, with intertitles announcing the passage of days, from Tuesday to Saturday, augmented by visual evidence of the couple’s daily routines: walking the dog, going to town, eating dinner, watching television and reading in the evening, talking in bed before turning out the light.  Variations in this routine—Geoff’s joining her on the drive to town, dancing, sex—register change as disruptive.  As A. O. Scott observed, “Katya’s return warps and unravels time itself. It bends and buckles, even as it seems, to everyone watching, to pass in the usual way, marked out in hours and calendar pages.”11 Kate initially considers a watch as an anniversary present, but decides against it: the watches she considers are Swiss and hence associated with Geoff’s past with Katya.12 She was going to have it engraved, she tells him, which would have meant stamping time’s passage with their names.  But she does not, suggesting that either the Swiss associations are overpowering or she no longer values their accumulated forty-five years—or both.  Geoff’s response—“I like not knowing the time”—may be interpreted as simultaneously rejecting routine and time’s passage.  Perhaps, but perhaps not, for the film’s focus on Kate’s perspective makes it impossible to determine Geoff’s meaning precisely. 

The difference in point of view makes the endings of the two texts radically divergent.  “In Another Country” ends unambiguously: Mrs. Mercer sustains her Tuesday routine, departing their home for an excursion to the Horseshow Pass and Swallow Falls, while Mr. Mercer departs for Switzerland, packing a rucksack with the maps, photos and letter “to prove he had a right to see her in the ice if anyone in authority challenged him” (19).  He does not make it to the Alps by story’s end, at least physically.  But he is there in his mind: “Mr. Mercer brought his mind to bear on a six-week baby beginning in a girl of twenty in the ice now after sixty years uncovered because the glacier had lost its snow and discovered in there, fresh” (20).   He stands still, however, before a neighbor’s home and she “tried her best then, shaking him gently, speaking close up into his absent face, to get through to what was still alive in him in there behind his glasses and the glaze of tears” (20).  His glasses and tears, like ice, encase the only life in him: Katya and her baby.  He becomes the glacier and is thus effectively “in another country,” as the story’s title suggests. 

While Mr. Mercer had left a letter reassuring his wife that “it will all be back to normal here with you and me after that” (19) in 45 Years, it is Kate who imposes normality on the eve of their anniversary, telling her husband that he will take his pills, they will have dinner, go to bed and then try to start again.  The events of the following day appear to confirm this: Geoff brings her tea, they walk the dog together and attend their anniversary party.  He delivers the required speech, claiming that “the choices we make when we’re young are pretty bloody important,” and presents his youthful choice as his decision to marry Kate: “I need to say persuading you to marry me, Kate, was the best thing I’ve ever done.”  He adds, “I’m sorry, I truly am, that you haven’t always known that.”  “It’s about you and me, Kate,” he says, before breaking down in tears.  Geoff appears the opposite of Mr. Mercer: exposed but not encased in ice.  

However, context and point of view complicate interpretations of his words, as well as Kate’s actions which close the film.  While in Constantine’s story, Mrs. Mercer is absent and the story ends on the image of the glaciated Mr. Mercer, Haigh’s film closes on Kate: following Geoff’s speech they dance to the song played at their wedding, the Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,”13 the song Kate was humming as she entered the kitchen at the opening of the film.  In this scene, as elsewhere, the diegetic music offers pointed commentary, adding another layer of intertextual complexity.14 Kate and Geoff hold each other tightly as they dance for the onlooking guests to the first part of the song, which emphasizes fidelity:

They asked me how I knew

My true love was true

I of course replied

Something here inside cannot be denied

Subsequent lines introduce questions of doubt:

They said "someday you'll find all who love are blind"

When your heart's on fire,

You must realize, smoke gets in your eyes

So I chaffed them and I gaily laughed

To think they could doubt my love

At this moment in their dance, the couple is joined by others on the dance floor, a visual embodiment of the lyric’s “they.” As the song transitions to its closing revelations of the lovers’ separation, Kate disengages herself from Geoff:

Yet today my love has flown away,

I am without my love (without my love)

Now laughing friends deride

Tears I cannot hide

So I smile and say

When a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes

Kate forcefully wrenches her hand from Geoff’s and the film concludes with a close up of her face.  The viewer can only surmise that Kate takes the reference to the “lovely flame” who dies as referring to Katya, feeling herself to be the derided one.   She had expressed just such a fear when confronting Geoff the day before after learning he had visited a travel agency to make inquiries about travel to Switzerland.  She argued that Katya has been the “perfume” lurking in the background of their lives, influencing all their choices, including “the big things, too,” meaning their decision not to have children.  Kate tells Geoff, “it’s one thing knowing that I haven’t been enough for you, but I don’t want others knowing.”  She clearly takes his speech and the dance as performances, as “smoke,” concealing his enduring love not for her but for Katya. 

The song title has additional resonance for smoking is a sign—for both characters—of internal turmoil. Geoff resumes his habit after receiving the letter and Kate catches him several times furtively smoking cigarettes, their consumption obviously forbidden following his surgery.  They have an illicit association for that reason alone, but they appear linked as well to Katya’s intrusions into their marriage.  Kate catches a whiff of their scent after he’s been alone at home and she and Lena spot him smoking on a bench in town.  She sneaks one herself before ascending to the loft.  Cigarettes appear to signal the couple’s agitation regarding Katya, their smoke the “perfume” of her abiding presence.

But they may be blinding the viewer to alternative interpretations of Geoff’s behavior.  Smell cannot be seen and the film’s allusions to the unseen lead attentive viewers to be on alert for fissures or crevasses seeping through the layers of the seemingly solid visible surface.  The film invites viewers to reflect on alternatives to Kate’s version of events, to spot the cracks, burrow back through the layers, and root through all their accumulations. We witness Geoff’s actions from Kate’s perspective, influenced by her anxieties to consider smoking and other changes in his routine as signs of his preoccupation with and desire for Katya.  The “smoke” in Kate’s eyes—and hence the viewer’s—may not refer to her blindness to his involvement with Katya, but the relationship she imagines, conjured from the photos and registered aurally in the film through sound, not only in the sounds of wind and water but even the click of the slide projector.  Clicks of the projector accompany the film’s opening titles, conveying the omnipresence of Katya’s pregnancy.  Kate senses her in multiple dimensions: sight, sound and even smell.  Obscuring her senses—and the viewer’s—Kate’s jealousy may prevent audience’s from seeing Geoff and hearing his words plainly.  Kate prods him to concede that he would have married Katya “if they had got to Italy and if she hadn’t died,” but he points out that they did not get to Italy and she did die. He later tells Kate that his former lover had no influence on the decisions they made together: “She’s had nothing to do with any of that.”  Confronted with Kate’s feelings of her inferiority to Katya, he asks, “You really believe you haven’t been enough for me?” and, when she agrees, says, “That’s terrible.”  When she asks angrily if he knows what it’s like to be incapable of sharing what one feels, he agrees.  Since Kate’s feelings are fully evident—in words and in close-up shots—while his are not, viewers are likely to take Geoff’s brief, conciliatory answers as disingenuous efforts to placate her rather than genuine expressions.  When he tells her that he does not think she has not been enough for him, that that is not what he thinks, she says, “it is,” and “it’s my business to teach you that.”  Her words recall Lena’s claim that it’s women’s job to teach men what’s important.  Thus, when Geoff does appear to conform to her commands, like Kate, we suspect the authenticity of his actions.

If it is true that “the way we respond to any film will be in part the result of those other texts and influences we inescapably bring to bear on our viewing,” then, as Brian McFarlane suggests, “We need to have in mind, for instance, the parameters of cinematic practice at the time of the film’s production, the proclivities of the film’s director and writer, the auras that attach to the film’s stars” (McFarlane 26).  Rampling’s iconic status, combined with her onscreen performance shift the balance in Kate’s favor as much the shift in focalization.  This was Haigh’s intent as well.  He said, “I […] decided to tell the story solely from Kate’s perspective, which was different from the original story.  There are many films and works of fiction that deal with the male existential crisis and I wanted to take a different perspective on the story” (qtd. in McGill).  This assertion of his intent, combined with knowledge of his previous film Weekend (2011), centered on working-class gay men’s relationships, might sway some viewers to rest content with taking the film as challenging the ideal of long lasting heterosexual marriage.  But this would not only accord authorial intent—and extra-textual context—primacy in determining the film’s meaning, but to ignore its complexity, not to mention the process of interpretation and reinterpretation inherent in both adaptation and film reception.  As Thomas Leitch has argued, “the primary lesson of film adaptation [is] that texts remain alive only to the extent that they can be rewritten and that to experience a text in all its power requires each reader to rewrite it” (Film Adaptation, 12-13).  This applies to the adaptation as much as the source text for “an adaptation can be more complex or multiple” (Hutcheon 18).  This certainly applies to a film as multilayered as 45 Years.

Scenes arousing suspicion from Kate’s point of view have plausible alternatives if we attend to Geoff’s words.  For instance, his unexpected visit to town in search of the ballcock required to fix the toilet appears as a ruse from Kate’s perspective, as he arrives late for their lunch date without it, with the book about climate change’s effect on glaciers instead.  He does, however, say they had to order it and he does fix the toilet Saturday morning.  His distant expression during the encounter that follows with Lena and George appears to Kate as evidence of his preoccupation with Katya, but, while she has been occupied by looking at photos of Lena’s granddaughter, he has been listening to George nattering about his ukulele (heard distantly in the background), an annoyance he complains about later when explaining why he would rather skip a scheduled luncheon with George and other work colleagues.  He capitulates when Kate insists he attend, getting so drunk that he vomits on the ride home.  Having just seen Kate discover the slides in the loft confirming Katya’s pregnancy, viewers might presume, as Kate ostensibly does, that his drinking was motivated by his feelings for the dead girl carrying his baby.  We see her drive in silence, imagining her fury, distracted as viewers from Geoff’s complaints that the lunch was “fucking endless,” that his former colleagues have aged and grown more conservative, one former socialist now obsessed golf and his banker grandson.  When Kate reveals she has discovered he inquired about trips to Switzerland, he explains that he decided against the trip because he “can’t even walk to town.”  It is entirely possible that he means it when he says, “This isn’t about Katya.”

It may be, in fact, about the pressure of their upcoming anniversary.  He is, after all, expected to give a speech and undoubtedly knows that such pressures negatively impacted his friend George.  Lena assumes this to be the case when she connects his odd behavior to her husband’s before their fortieth anniversary.  As she confides this fact to Kate, Geoff and George are sharing drinks at the pub.  Or at least we are told that they are.  Since the camera shows only Lena and Kate, we cannot be certain.  Many of Geoff’s actions occur off screen so we have no basis for judgment.  When, for instance, did he purchase the necklace that he gives Kate as an anniversary present?  When he was supposedly purchasing the ballcock on Tuesday?  On Wednesday, when she and Lena spotted him in town smoking?  On Friday, when he takes the bus to town?  On that same day, Kate follows him into town and visits the travel agent, who confirms he has inquired about Switzerland.  But no mention is made of the day he made the inquiry.  Kate then returns to the shop selling Swiss watches.  She was considering buying a gift; was he?  Since his actions occur off screen, we cannot know. 

But if we accept Geoff’s words, including those of his speech, as truthful, then the ending of the film, despite its significant departures from the story, is similarly despairing.  Like Katya’s body in the ice, a thematic core remains under the layers of narrative and cinematic complexity.   The characters in Constantine’s story, though physically proximate, exist in separate countries, walled off from each other mentally and emotionally.   Mrs. Mercer remains committed to the marriage and their home, while Mr. Mercer journeys, at least mentally, to the other “Mrs.” Mercer of his past.  In 45 Years, Geoff and Kate do the reverse: he recommits to their marriage, while she sees reminders of Katya everywhere, including her husband’s expressions of his commitment to her, the present and only real Mrs. Mercer.  When he says, “This isn’t about Katya,” she cannot believe him, owing to her overpowering jealousy.  But because she told him how to act, commanded him to “start again” on the eve of their anniversary, she cannot know whether he means it when he says, “It’s about you and me, Kate,” or if he is merely saying so to save her the humiliation she fears. Both texts emphasize that people who have lived with each other intimately, for decades, still cannot know the other’s thoughts and cannot adequately communicate their own.  Ironically, this chilling realization is encased by layers of literary and cinematic texts that affirm the complexity of communication—verbal, visual, aural—and the proliferation of interpretation effected through adaptation and audience reception.


1  Attempts at definition (and redefinition) have produced debates of their own. On challenges to the metaphor of “translation,” see Venuti. The definition of “adaptation” itself has come under scrutiny by Thomas Leitch in “Adaptation and Intertextuality.”

2  Constantine has published four collections of stories and a novel in the United Kingdom, and in 2013 his Tea at the Midland and Other Stories won the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award (his second win), beating out Joyce Carol Oates, Deborah Levy, and Peter Stamm.

3  I am indebted for this insight to an anonymous reviewer of this article.  Mason’s story reverses the sexes: a young husband perishes while mountaineering.  In the process of recovering the body, rescuers lose their grip and it falls into a crevasse.  Glacial melting reveals it twenty-four years later to his wife: “Under the ice Mark Frobisher lay quietly, like a youth asleep. The twenty-four years had cut not a line about his mouth, not a wrinkle about his eyes. The glacier had used him even more tenderly than it had used his watch. The years had taken no toll of him. He was as young, his features were as clear and handsome, as on the day when he had set out upon his tragic expedition. And over him bent his wife, a woman worn, lined, old” (“The Crystal Trench”).

4  In the same article, Constantine notes that he had no direct involvement in the film and had not, at the time of its release, met the director.

5  Kamilla Elliott’s work on the complex relationship of word and image in film and literature is pertinent here, given the verbal text’s reliance on visual description and the cinematic text’s avoidance of visual representation in favor of what she would term “mental verbalizing” (221).   

6  Several critics sensed the haunting nature of the past’s return in the film version.  A. O. Scott argued, “The news about Katya comes into their house like a visitation from another dimension of experience, a reminder of the uncanny, irrational power of memory and desire.”  

7  In his review of the film version, Tim Robey noted “she’s the one dropped into a crevasse, the victim of an extreme case of emotional climate change.”

8  For instance, Dana Stevens argues, “Rampling’s stern gaze is more expressive in stillness than most actors’ faces are in motion.” A. O. Scott notes that Rampling “conveys emotions so strange and intense that they don’t quite have names.” Both Rampling and Courtenay won best actor awards at the Berlin International Film Festival and received multiple nominations.  Rampling won additional awards from film festivals and film critics (“45 Years: Awards”).   

9  Stevens observes cannily that the casting reinforces the distance for viewers between the present and 1960s: “Seeing these two magnificent actors share a screen can’t help but evoke memories of the swinging ’60s, when both were darlings of the art house: Courtenay for English kitchen-sink dramas like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Rampling for stylishly bleak European films like The Damned.”

10 The film’s supervising sound editor was Joakim Sundström, previously recognized for his work on The Constant Gardener (2005).  On sound as an “expressive resource,” see Stam 56.

11 Scott further links the film’s thematic preoccupation with time to cinematic time.

12 The film’s inclusion of the watch and necklace recall “The Crystal Trench”: in the story, the melting ice reveals the husband’s gold watch and a locket containing a photo of another woman.

13 While written by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach for their 1933 musical Roberta, the most famous version is the Platters’ 1958 recording.

14 As Mark Kermode notes, “the diegetic musical choices tell a sinister tale of their own; after describing how he suspected their Alpine guide of flirting with his girlfriend, Geoff leads Kate around the living room to the tune of Stagger Lee, its themes of quarrelling and murder unabated by Lloyd Price’s upbeat treatment. (The Turtles’s Happy Together and the Moody Blues’ Go Now also provide arch romantic commentary).”

15 She had been previously affected by popular song lyrics, switching off Gary Puckett singing “Young girl, get out of my mind” on the car radio.

Works Cited

45 Years.  Dir. Andrew Haigh.  Perf. Tom Courtenay, Charlotte Rampling, Geraldine James.  IFC Films, 2015.

45 Years: Awards.” Internet Movie Database. Web.  January 12, 2016.

Constantine, David. “In Another Country.” In Another Country: Selected Stories.  Windsor, ON: Biblioasis, 2015. 9-20. Print.

“The Crystal Trench.”  Alfred Hitchcock Presents.  Season 5, Episode 2.  Dir. by Alfred Hitchcock.  Written by A. E. W. Mason (story) and Stirling Silliphant (teleplay). October 4, 1959.

Elliott, Kamilla.  Rethinking the Novel/Film Debate.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003.

Harrison, Stephanie.  “Introduction: Short Story to Big Screen.”  Adaptations: From Short Story to Big Screen: 35 Great Stories that Have Inspired Great Films.  Ed. Stephanie Harrison.  New York: Three Rivers Press, 2005.  xv-xix.

Hemingway, Ernest.  “In Another Country.”  Men Without Women.  New York: Scribner, 1927.

Hutcheon, Linda.  A Theory of Adaptation.  New York: Routledge, 2006.

Kermode, Mark. “45 Years Review: A Very Stylish Marriage.” The Guardian August 30, 2015. Web.  January 12, 2016.

Leitch, Thomas. “Adaptation and Intertextuality, or, What isn’t an Adaptation, and What Does it Matter?” A Companion to Literature, Film, and Adaptation. Ed. Deborah Cartmell. Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2012.  87-104.

---. Film Adaptation and its Discontents: From Gone with the Wind to The Passion of the Christ.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2007. 

Marlowe, Christopher.  The Jew of Malta.  New York: Dover, 2003.

Mason, A. E. W.  “The Crystal Trench.” 1915. Ed. Dan Neyer.  Famous (and Forgotten) Fiction.  February 2014. Web. May 24, 2017.

McGill, Hannah. “Andrew Haigh Q&A.” 45 Years Press Notes. IFC Films, 2015.  Print.

McFarlane, Brian.  “Reading Film and Literature.”  The Cambridge Companion to Literature on Screen.  Ed. Deborah Cartmell and Imelda Whelehan.  Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.  15-28.

Murphy, Mekado. “Anatomy of a Scene: ’45 Years’.” The New York Times December 31, 2015.  Web.  January 12, 2016.

Naremore, James.  “Introduction: Film and the Reign of Adaptation.” Film Adaptation.  New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000. 1-18.

Robey, Tim.  “45 Years Review: 'Charlotte Rampling has never been better'.” The Telegraph August 27, 2015.  Web.  January 12, 2016.

Sanders, Julie.  Adaptation and Appropriation.  London and New York: Routledge, 2006.

Scott, A. O. “In ‘45 Years,’ a Dead Flame Threatens a Marriage.” New York Times December 22, 2015. Web.  January 12, 2016.

Shute, Joe. “The True Story (Behind the Story) that Inspired 45 Years.” The Telegraph 29 August 2015. Web.  January 12, 2016.

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” Lyrics by Jerome Kern and Otto Harbach. Universal Music Publishing Group. Web.  January 12, 2016.

Robert Stam.  “Beyond Fidelity: The Dialogics of Adaptation.” Film Adaptation.  Ed. James Naremore. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 2000. 54–76.

Stevens, Dana. “45 Years: A Sobering, Beautiful Mystery Story about a Long Marriage.” Slate December 22, 2015. Web.  January 12, 2016.

Venuti, Lawrence. “Adaptation, Translation, Critique.”  Journal of Visual Culture  6 (April 2007): 25-43.

Wells-Lassange, Shannon and Ariane Hudelet.  “Introduction.”  Screening Text: Critical Perspectives on Screen Adaptation.  Ed. Shannon Wells-Lassange and Ariane Hudelet.  Jefferson, NC: MacFarland, 2013.  1-8.