December has inexorably become the month that everyone, including this website, waxes hyperbolic about their favorite movies of the year. With The Force Awakens, The Hateful Eight, Joy, The Revenant, and a dozen other larger affairs being released this winter, it’s likely that something like Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years—a tender, tactile drama—will get lost in the shuffle. Adapted from David Constantine’s short story, the movie is an honest examination of love in all its splendor and pain. In the week before their 45th anniversary, we’re presented with Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay), whose nearly half-century-long relationship is put into question upon the discovery of a letter. It’s here that both the film and our conversation with Haigh and Courtenay begin. (Note: Haigh and Courtenay do discuss some of the film’s plot points.)
The A.V. Club: Given the quality and power of this movie, it would seem that everyone was emotionally invested.
Tom Courtenay: My emotional investment started when I read the first scene of the actual drama, i.e., when Kate comes in with the letter. They found her. And I found that scene stupendous, this notion of this girl down there in the ice. And I can’t explain it, there’s no logic to it, but the notion of one’s youth that somehow comes back but is gone, a man of my age connecting to that timing of life. It would be, to me, about, oh gosh, how my life was and how different it would have been.
AVC: Do you contemplate your youth often?
TC: Yeah, I think one does. I keep saying that backwards is all you can see. You can’t see front. My wife says, “Stop, you’re always in the past.” She sees me sort of daydreaming. You’ve got to be aware as you get older that you’re older, because you are. You see young girls, and it’s just the same as when you looked at them before, maybe more captivating. You see yourself in your reflection. So what’s gone comes back to him. All I know is that by the end of that first scene, I was absolutely caught.
Andrew Haigh: The same thing for me is the power of that past, and how the past can affect your present. And also, the aspect of choices, and how we have to make choices throughout our lives, and how do we know we’re making the right choices, or making the wrong choices, what do we do when we get to a certain age and look back at those choices that we’ve made that seem to have no rhyme or reason at the time. You fall into what you do in your life, and you don’t realize how absolutely fundamental they can change the course of your life. I’m always very, very concerned with what’s come before and what’s made me the person I am, and what choices I’ve made have got me to this position, and how randomly meaningless they can be sometimes. And I think when you focus in too closely on your existence it can so easily crumble apart. And what you’re left with after it’s crumbled apart.
AH: Sadness and regret! [Laughs.] Or, like, joy. Sometimes you realize that there’s no inherent meaning in any of your choices, and that can be liberating for some people, and for some other people it can be destructive.
TC: You [Andrew] didn’t give me many notes, but one time he said—it was a very good point, I was quite nervous in the first week—“You know, this is also liberating for him.” Now he’s young again, and there’s this excitement for him.
AVC: Thinking of that first scene, do you think it’s inevitable that we hurt the person we’re currently with the moment you bring up your romantic past?
AH: I suppose it’s about two things. First, you can never truly know another person ever, and I think that’s very hard when you’re in a relationship. You love someone, you trust them, you adore them, they’re your companion, they’re your friend, but you still never truly know them. We all have our pasts before we know someone, and we all have our interior lives.
AVC: The wife (Kate, played by Charlotte Rampling) in the film says, “You know, it’s been 45 years, I never told you about my mom and this event.”
AH: It seems like from personal experience and just from watching people that when you meet someone, the course of your relationships is made in that foundation. So what you say in those first six months, or year, or even day, is what comes to define the rest of the relationship. You meet someone new, it’s your one amazing chance to redefine yourself and show the world who you are. And then you decide not to tell them everything. I think it makes complete sense to us that when Jeff met Kate in a nightclub in Leeds, as they were dating and courting, he wouldn’t have said, “Oh I had this wife and this girl and I would have married her, and she fell down a hole and died, and I loved her.”
TC: Yes, he would have said something, but much more obliquely.
AH: He certainly wouldn’t have said, “She was everything to me,” or “She was my love,” or we had things that then get revealed.
TC: All of this brings to mind when I lived in this house in the ’60s in Fulton just up from Chelsea, and I had my life and girls and things, and then I got married.
AVC: How old are you here?
TC: It was still quite late when I got married, 30s, I don’t know. [Laughs.] I know I’m 78 now. Then I had to move, but I sold the house for peanuts because she knew that I had had this life. I’m not married to her now.
AVC: She wouldn’t live in the house because of your past life in it?
TC: She couldn’t bear it.
AH: We all have our ghosts, don’t we?
TC: The girls had been in this house.
AH: I know.
AVC: And that bothered her?
TC: Did it ever.
AVC: What did your wife say to you?
TC: I can’t remember, it was just very clear, let’s get out of here.
AH: Because in a relationship, you’re desperately trying to create a unit, the two of you together essentially against the world, and you wanted to start whatever it is together with a clean, fresh slate, and build something else. Now, of course, none of us have that, and I think we all try and forget the past that we’ve had. Society tells you, “Forget the past, forget things that have happened to you, forget the events of your life.” But you can’t. It’s there. Everything you do, every decision is based on things that have happened to you. Where you were born, who you lived with, what happened to you, what your parents did, everything. You can’t escape it no matter how much you try.
AVC: Do you have to put on that front at the beginning in order to make a relationship work?
AH: I’m convinced you do. I think whenever you first meet someone you are on your best behavior. Or you’re changing your behavior to suit the person you want to be, so it makes sense.
AVC: So it’s the proper representative that’s showing up—
AH: But I don’t know if that ever truly reveals itself. We all have our little deep dark secrets.
TC: Sure, my now-wife—we got together in ’81, we married a few years after—she’s been very good in the past about going in the theater with me to see actresses I had known. But then, she’s not an actress, you see.
AH: And some people are more confident and comfortable within themselves, I think that’s the whole thing about this story, it’s about two people who are vulnerable in this certain situation. Maybe they’ve always been vulnerable, and maybe certain people would have dealt with it in a different way, but for me, these two people are vulnerable people that are trying to look back at their lives and work out if it’s been what they wanted it to be and how could it have been different, and do we still love each other, and is that love real, and is that strong enough.
AVC: Do you believe we’re meant to be with one person?
AH: Oh, hell no! I don’t. I think it’s just such a strange concept, for me personally. [Laughs.]
TC: It’s the romantic ideal, it’s what we all dream of.
AVC: Did you believe that when you married your first wife?
TC: This is something particular to actors, especially in plays, and in films, too—but in plays, it’s like, don’t get involved with anyone in the play. The old actors, you know, in the old days, they used to go on tour, to get the play ready for the West End, and to learn their lines. The old timers used to say, “Be very careful, dear boy, what you get in to during the first weeks of a long tour.” And that’s it, involvements in the work, the life of the play—I’ve confused it with real life, and they’re not the same. When you make that mistake of putting the imaginary one in the real one—
AVC: Has it backfired on you?
TC: Yes. And how.
AH: And it’s also such a weird concept to me, because if you believe in the notion of the One Person, then you basically have to believe in Fate in all its entirety.
AVC: So you’re someone who subscribes to the idea that life is just a random series of events. Unmitigated chaos.
AH: Absolutely. I don’t believe in God and I don’t believe in Fate, or an overarching order.
AVC: Are you religious, Tom?
TC: No, I’m not religious. I love what Clive James said the other day. James is a brilliant writer, but he keeps on writing poems on stuff. And he said, “God doesn’t have a leg to stand on.”
AH: I think it’s weird, when you live in Britain. We’re not a really religious nation. I was reading a statistic, and like 2 percent of Americans are atheists and 39 percent of British people are, so I definitely think there’s a slightly different thing.
AVC: But do you really believe life unfolds with no rhyme or reason?
AH: I felt like there was an absolute randomness and meaninglessness to life, but I think that the burden that we have as individuals is that we can create our own meaning by the choices that we make and the things that we do, and that’s incredibly terrifying. It means it is on our shoulders to change our lives and to change the lives of others around us. To me, it’s such an enormous struggle and pain that we know that we have the control to dictate what our life is.
TC: My occupation has been a great deal with David Foster Wallace, and he didn’t manage it, and he was very much looking for something that isn’t totally selfish, and finding meaning. It’s a struggle.
AH: I think the key foundation to everybody’s life is trying to make out what that life is and what they can make it. Any project, and 45 Years especially, is about these two characters working out if their relationship has had the meaning that they wanted it to have, and does that meaning define their life. And that becomes so paramount in their kind of crisis, I suppose.
AVC: Have you both had the meaning you wanted your life to have?
AH: I think it’s an ongoing process. It’s very hard to know.
TC: I think you have moments.
AVC: I suspect you’ve had more than both of us.
TC: Put together. [Laughs.] Yeah, I’ve tried. I’ve chosen the wrong moment to tell you and Charlotte about being happy. And I just remember, I did the solo thing, died the death in New York, as they say. But it was really something. There was this Russian, and he drunkenly goes to this place, but it doesn’t exist—the place, it’s all in his head. When he gets there, I just remember the silence in the house once he’s got there and it doesn’t exist, this place. And it’s been funny, this journey, with funny people on the train. Just standing there, simple, nothing, quiet, just silence. And I thought, “This was good.”
AVC: You were happy in that moment.
TC: All concentrated, all together, and I’m towards the end of this very beautiful peace.