The Dead Woman in the Attic

45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)

One of the songs that Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) want to play at their forty-fifth anniversary party is “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”. And it seems likely to — it’s filmed in a perpetually semi-foggy Norfolk, Geoff (and latterly Kate) sneak out for cigarettes and that might be a tear or two.

Theirs seems a happy marriage. Kate is a retired teacher, we learn from a tell-don’t-show conversation with her postie, Geoff is a former factory worker, slowly falling apart, whose heart condition caused their fortieth anniversary celebration to be cancelled. They have few photos of themselves and no children — but several dogs.

Then comes the bombshell. Fifty years ago, Geoff had pretended to be married to Katya, a German woman two years older than him, on a holiday in the Swiss mountains. She had fallen into a crevasse and her body has only just been found.

Kate notes that it is ridiculous to be jealous of a woman who died before they met. But still.

Indeed. Still.

Kate clearly feels haunted by Geoff’s ex (and Kate/Katya are so close as names), as the house becomes increasingly creaking and full of drafts. How much of their lives together were dependent on her not being Katya? Did they not have children because of this? And have far has Geoff been thinking of her? The mementos are in the attic — how often has he been with them? How often has he been with her? Had they slept together? Was she pregnant?

Haigh lets the camera rest on the two of them, lingering, letting us soak up the atmosphere. One or other will slide out of shot or come into view, forcing us to read faces (and sometimes silences). It’s all about reading the reaction.

Part of you may well think that she should just get over herself — why should someone he knew before her make her jealous? But, still. Did she have no boyfriends before him? But, still.

Both actors come with histories — La Caduta degli dei (The Damned, Luchino Visconti, 1969)), Il portiere di notte (The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974)) and Max mon amour (Nagisa Oshima, 1986) for her, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962), Billy Liar (John Schlesinger, 1963) and Last Orders (Fred Schepisi, 2001) for him — and apparently he’s Corporal Jonesy in the Dad’s Army Film. I associate a certain iciness yet sexuality with her (a Nicole Kidman with talent) and a melancholia with him. The actors, bravely, give us a sex scene — which we are initially teased over by the director as the bedroom door closes — and a lot of film history has flowed under the bridge for it.

I was struck by a certain amount of Katherine Mansfield-ness about the narrative — which turns out to be based on a short story. Her epiphanies are never as earth changing as Joyce’s and always seem a little out of reach — an infinity glimpsed, a set of footsteps over your grave, something learned but immediately forgotten. What shall we do now? What shall we do?

Kate needs her exorcism — but there seems to have been a lie at the heart of their marriage that its forty-five years cannot erase. The trust is gone and yet they might be closer than ever. Her friend Lena (Geraldine James) has tried to reassure her, how it is with women and how it is with men, and there has been a life, they have had a life (with photographs) … But, still.

Haunting.

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