Back to IndieWire

’45 Years’ Stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay Explain Why They Had to Make Their New Drama

'45 Years' Stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay Explain Why They Had to Make Their New Drama

READ MORE: Berlin Review: Charlotte Rampling is Stunning in Andrew Haigh’s Powerful ’45 Years’

In a year of affecting onscreen romances — the
delicately homespun lesbian affair of “Carol,” the
BDSM mind games of “The Duke of Burgundy,” the
comparatively wholesome courtship of “Brooklyn” — Tom
Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling have created the ideal un-love story.

“45
Years,” their bruising new film with emerging British master Andrew
Haigh, begins with a couple secure in what appears to be a healthy, functional
marriage and plumbs the little cracks in its foundation until they stretch wide
enough to fall into and disappear. It is the diametric opposite of a romance
film, eroding trust and watching patiently as doubt and jealousy creep in to
drive upper-middle-class spouses Geoff and Kate apart. 

All seems well, at first. With one week to go until their
forty-fifth anniversary and the tasteful soirée they’re
throwing to celebrate it, Geoff receives a letter containing news that shifts
the topography of their relationship just as action in the Earth’s
mantle shifts the crust’s plates. The result is no less
catastrophic, though on a decidedly smaller scale; decades of resentment and
insecurity are shaken loose so that they may rise to the surface and put Geoff and Kate through a quiet emotional hell. The two actors were faced with an
estimable challenge, assigned roles that demanded decades of history be
conveyed in simple glances, breaths, and pauses.

But this is hardly the first
rodeo for Courtenay, 78, or Rampling, 69.

Grown-Ups Telling Grown-Up Stories

Though both British actors have enjoyed long, fruitful careers
spanning multiple decades and amassing a dragon’s hoard of awards
hardware, it’s still a rarity to see performers of their respective ages
headlining in a film about romance. Love pictures tend to be the province of
the young (and good-looking, and straight, and white…), and when actors
on the older side do land leading roles, it’s often in blandly
inoffensive, safe material in the vein of “The Best Marigold
Hotel.” 

Roles characterized by intensity, pain, and nuance tend to
be in perilously short supply for actors past middle age, and so both Rampling
and Courtenay relished the opportunity to dig into “45 Years.”

“I’ve always wanted to make films like
this,” Rampling said during a recent interview with Indiewire. “Right
from the beginning, these were the sorts of films I wanted to make. I’ve
been rigorous about it, haven’t accepted too much work that’d
take me away from these kinds of characters. I wanted to make films about real
life, not necessarily entertainment films. A lot of the time, real life isn’t
entertaining.”

While we may have to respectfully disagree with Ms. Rampling on
that one — among the many values of “45 Years” is
that it functions just fine as a gripping work of domestic entertainment — the
film does not shy away from the nastier bits of realism.

For many members of
the presumably adult audience, and doubly so towards those viewers who are
married, the film can dredge up uncomfortable truths about insecurity and
discontent in relationships. Husbands and wives recognize the parts of
themselves they may not quite like in Kate and Geoff, and while this can be
taxing work for the actors who bring these troubling situations to life,
Rampling and Courtenay jumped at the chance to explore such a minefield.

“It’s about making films that the
audience can see themselves in,” Rampling
said. “And that can
sometimes be uncomfortable, but it’s
all about being able to recognize yourself in the film. The human condition is
like ‘this,’ and you hope the audience
will say, ‘Oh, my god, that’s true.'”

“We don’t like to think that we have to
have our secrets, but I think we probably do,” Courtenay added. “At
home, I don’t say to my wife, ‘Oh, Isabelle, I saw this
girl, she was nineteen years old and so beautiful.’ It’s a
perfectly reasonable thing to think, and it doesn’t mean I don’t
love Isabelle. But people don’t
discuss everything, especially men. I notice men tend to be quieter about
things. Eh, I don’t know.”

  The nifty part about “45
Years” is that only actors
with the presence, worldliness and experience of Courtenay and Rampling could
possibly take on these roles, where the decades of words that have gone unsaid
carry more weight than most of the script. In a business obsessed with youth
and the appearance of vitality, the film remains mindful of the value of mature
actors as founts of wisdom, while at the same time allowing them to be flawed
and vulnerable human beings.

Working with Andrew Haigh

“45 Years” director Andrew Haigh seems intent on
making sure that every group marginalized by the romance-industrial complex
gets an even-handed mature depiction of their love.

With 2011’s
searing “Weekend,” the publicly homosexual Haigh gave gay
men an unyielding relationship drama to be proud of, and now he’s
done the same for actors of a certain age. But more than their simple outsider
status, Haigh’s films are united by their stonefaced commitment to brutal
emotional honesty. The couples in his films fight, and not about whose week it
is to drag the garbage to the curb. Haigh’s players lash out
at others instead of inspecting their own failings, and bottle up their
misgivings when they should be frankly communicating. Instead of heaving sobs
and declarations of love, a lot of the emotional turmoil plays out internally
through carefully-chosen phrases that imply more than they give away, or mere
gestures.

With only two features under his belt (he supplemented his
filmography with a handful of directing gigs on HBO’s “Looking”),
Haigh may be one of Hollywood’s fresher faces, but both Rampling and
Courtenay recognized a talent when the offers came in.

“I read the screenplay and I really, really loved it,” Rampling
said. “It’s so much the kind of film I want to
do, but I thought that to bring it to the screen, it’d need a delicate
hand from a director. He sent ‘Weekend’ along
with the screenplay, so I saw it right after I read the script. You can see
through ‘Weekend,’ he really understands the subject.”

“It’s so simple, and yet so beautifully
written,” Courtenay added. “He’s a brilliant
writer, plus he allowed us to improvise from time to time.”

Haigh’s direction is careful, attentive and
precise; no cut is superfluous and no shot wasted. He believes in the power of
good old-fashioned acting, letting a camera roll on and on while his characters
blow you away just by living. He placed a great deal of trust in his stars
during the intimate production process for “45 Years.”

“I think the way he shot it, rarely in close-up and mostly
two-shots, you have to act with one another. I’ve been more of a
theatre actor than a film actor, but I’m still quite naturalistic. And
Charlotte is naturalistic, because she’s only been a film actress,” Courtenay said.

“I think we
have a similar style, and we like acting that you can’t actually see.
Andrew wanted me, and he picked Charlotte. He assured me that there was never
anyone for the role but me, and he saw something in Charlotte as well. He saw
something in the two of us,” he continued.

Coping with Grief

Getting into key specifics of the “45 Years” plot
robs the film of the pleasure inherent in watching its shocking plot gradually
unspool, but allow it to be said that it centers on grief, and how we process
traumas. Geoff and Kate respond to a devastating development in categorically
different ways, and their strategies for coping, either healthy and
dysfunctional, take a terrible emotional toll on them. The actors reckoned with
the weighty subject material with characteristic aplomb, however.

“I don’t think there is a healthy way [to
cope]!” Rampling said. “You either have a confrontation, or
you have an avoidance. In all situations, you either confront what faces you or
you kind of negotiate it. But can you negotiate a couples’ situation?
There is no way, no good way, and so you choose a way. You must blast your way
in, and sometimes the situation may blast you back out, but sometimes it doesn’t,
and you survive.”

She continued, “But you have to move it in some way, don’t
you? In the movie, Kate harbors so much unspoken angst, doubt, her own internal
problematics about so many things over the years that she’s
never been able to handle. And then, suddenly, all of these buttons are being
pushed. What do you do? You just tear away.”

The difficult topics that inform the film’s themes left an
impression on the actors, but for Rampling in particular, the script struck a
chord. Her husband Jean-Nöel passed away earlier this year, and
so as the internationally acclaimed actress has trod the awards trail, a
heartbreaking personal resonance has persisted. She would find comfort in the
wellspring of praise from the public upon the film’s release.

 
“The gratifying part is that people are really very affected
by this film,” Rampling said. “It started with the critics, who were
the first ones to push and push and push it. They were so incredibly involved
with this film, they got it. They went with it, took it and carried it, and then
the audiences followed along. The film holds people. Talking about Jean-Nöel
passing away, and I’m in the midst of this moment of
extreme sadness in my life, but at the same time I’ve got this film
being held with reverence and love and kindness. It’s… it’s
awesome.”

2015 on Film

With the year winding down and all major critical bodies
concocting lists passing judgement on the greatest films of 2015, it seemed
worth a shot to grill Courtenay and Rampling on their favorites in the last
twelve months as well. Both actors keep busy working schedules and made sure to
preface their picks with an admission that they weren’t able to see
nearly as many movies as they’d have liked this year. (But then, who
is?) Regardless, the pair showed love for some crowd-pleasing indies from both
sides of the Atlantic.

“I know the producer of ‘Brooklyn,’ but
I absolutely loved that film,” Courtenay said. “I got drawn into the girl’s story, and I got very upset
thinking, ‘Has she done wrong? Has she made the wrong decisions?’ I
felt very involved, and I love getting involved in that human way with her fate
and her plight.”

“I just saw ‘Room,’ I’ll
say that one,” Rampling offered. “It’s a very
emotionally intense film. They get it, it was disturbing but beautifully done.
Nothing’s too much, it’s just there and grabs you in a very
alarming way. That’s the kind of cinema I really like.”

“45 Years” opens on December 23.

READ MORE: James Franco’s Movie Column: Why Charlotte Rampling is Trying Something Different in ’45 Years’

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , , , ,