'45 Years' Of Marriage Change With One Letter In the movie "45 Years," a man gets a piece of news that threatens the quiet life he and his wife have built together. NPR's Scott Simon speaks with one of the film's stars, Charlotte Rampling.

'45 Years' Of Marriage Change With One Letter

'45 Years' Of Marriage Change With One Letter

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In the movie "45 Years," a man gets a piece of news that threatens the quiet life he and his wife have built together. NPR's Scott Simon speaks with one of the film's stars, Charlotte Rampling.


Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay star in a new film in which the most telling scenes are about going to the attic, having tea or walking the dog. There's not even a lot of dialogue. The film is shattering. "45 Years" gives us Kate and Geoff Mercer about to celebrate their 45th anniversary when Geoff opens a letter in their kitchen that tells him the body of an old love has been discovered in the melting ice of a glacier in Switzerland. They were climbing when she slipped and died long before Kate and Geoff ever met. Kate asks him...


CHARLOTTE RAMPLING: (As Kate Mercer) If she hadn't died, if you hadn't got to Italy, would you have married her for real?

TOM COURTENAY: (As Geoff Mercer) But we didn't go to Italy, did we? And she did die.

RAMPLING: (As Kate Mercer) Yeah, but if you had.

COURTENAY: (As Geoff Mercer) I thought you didn't like theoretical questions.

RAMPLING: (As Kate Mercer)Just answer me.

SIMON: The body of the old, lost girlfriend discovered in the fissure of a glacier opens a fissure between the long happy couple, too. Charlotte Rampling who starred in "The Night Porter" more than 40 years ago and "Broadchurch" now has already won the Silver Bear for best actress at the Berlin Film Festival for "45 Years." She joins us from Paris. Thanks so much for being with us.

RAMPLING: It's a pleasure.

SIMON: What drew you to this film, Ms. Rampling?

RAMPLING: I think the simplicity with which you introduce the telling of the story just now that this is a couple that just goes quietly about their lives. You know, she's retired. He is, too. They're - they seem very content together, companions. They've lived a long time together and then something so unexpected can change everything and that's what I think makes it an extraordinary tale because a button is pushed and then all the other buttons are pushed and you just suddenly do not know where you are. You're in total confusion.

SIMON: What do you think begins to worry Kate?

RAMPLING: It's her husband's attitude to begin with, that he becomes very remote, very strange. It seems that he's wanting to, you know, go back to that time when he was with the girl to re-create something of the past with this dead woman. That's the thing that starts to shift things and starts to really make her, you know, wonder what on Earth is going on and then there is the story of the attic

SIMON: I don't know how much we can tell, but the story of...

RAMPLING: No, we can't tell you all (laughter).

SIMON: OK, we can't. OK, the story of the attic.


SIMON: And we - I would like to mention the film is written and directed by Andrew Haigh. You and Tom Courtenay seem to finish each other's sentences. Was it that kind of working relationship?

RAMPLING: Yeah, and it's - that's actually what does happen. I think Andrew - he's a young man of 42, but he's very wise. And he's obviously much older than his years and understands relationships very, very beautifully. And that's what does happen, you know, when you've lived so long together. So we're not going to be sort of making correct sentences and sort of being, you know, being really polite with each other in a way that may be a script could do it. But this is about just like you've rubbing against us - each other all those years so there's a familiarity which is wonderfully comfortable. And that's why it becomes more and more distressing that, you know, something awful could happen, that this could stop and that it might have to, yeah, change for a while.

SIMON: I wonder if you could tell me the story. I've read over the years you were discovered in the secretarial pool at the age of 17.

RAMPLING: (Laughter) You like that story, do you?

SIMON: I've never heard of it. I just - that's all I know about it, the phrase.

RAMPLING: Oh, right, yeah, well, that was true. It was true, yes. I mean, I had to - I had to earn my living, so my father sent me to a secretarial school. I then got a job. It was a temporary job in an advertising agency, and I was spotted on the executive floors. One of the guys came down and said would I be photographed for a Cadbury advertisement. Cadbury is, you know, the milk bars, the chocolate

SIMON: Have you seen that picture in recent years?

RAMPLING: Yes, I have. I've got it. I've got it stuck in an album.

SIMON: Well, I - 'cause there's a - at one point in the film Geoff says - he looks at one of his old photos and says doesn't even - it doesn't even feel that it was me who was there. I wonder how you feel about when you take a look at pictures of you at earlier stages when you were photographed.

RAMPLING: Well, funny enough, no, I don't have that feeling. I really feel that I was there. I don't remember lots of things, but that I can remember. And photographs actually are very helpful in films, too, 'cause they really remind you of where you were, what you were doing, how you were doing it, and so not only do you remember the - sort of the anecdote and the details, but you also remember what you were feeling. So I certainly remember what I was feeling when I got that. I was so proud because, I mean, I was only 17 and I just got my first job and this could - this could mean big stuff (laughter).

SIMON: Well, and it did as it turns out.

RAMPLING: And it did, and it did, yeah.

SIMON: You made a number of signature films in the late 60s and 70s - Luchino Visconti's "The Damned," "The Night Porter," a film which I've always wanted to see, "Max Mon Amour," a woman who falls for a chimpanzee, right?


SIMON: I have read interviews over the years in which you said those were not necessarily happy times for you.

RAMPLING: No, I was - I had a troubled inner life, that's for sure, for quite a long time. And in fact, it's been the second part of my life which has been much better. But the first part of my life I - yeah, I was often in difficulties, yeah.

SIMON: Can I ask why or what?

RAMPLING: I don't know really. It's just - I think that's the nature of the beast. It's what we've lived, what we haven't lived, how we come to terms with I guess just, you know, who we are. It's a, you know, it's a psychological sort of minefield, isn't it, life, and some of us have had greater difficulties fathoming it out and getting through and feeling OK.

SIMON: Actors, of course, are called upon to be so many different kinds of people

RAMPLING: Yes, but that actually was - I loved that. That really helped. That really - I enjoyed the fact that I could, you know, I could leave myself and go and be someone else and be protected by a whole unit of people who were looking after me and, you know, making sure that everything was all right for the character even though Charlotte might have been sort of on the back burner

SIMON: Yeah. How is acting different for you now than it was, say, in your 20s?

RAMPLING: My life's experience now is richer, it's more rewarding. I've lived through many different things and come out of - through many different things. So I've actually got, you know, a basket of things that I can go into. But it's still very much the same. I still as am instinctive and as - jumping off in the deep end all the time. I sort of love that.

SIMON: And at this point your life, what do you think acting can give to people?

RAMPLING: Well, I think in the reactions of people having seen now "45 Years" they've been very affected by this film. Now, when somebody is affected by something, it means you have touched. It means you have actually shared something profoundly and deeply with another human being, and that's really what I want to do because that's the thing that's most important. And it's the most difficult thing to do, is to get that across, is to get that sort of shared combustion in a moment when they are just sitting in a cinema watching what you are able to give them and getting it.

SIMON: Charlotte Rampling - she stars with Tom Courtenay in the film "45 Years." Thanks so much.

RAMPLING: Thank you very much.

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A Long-Buried Secret, Once Revealed, Rattles '45 Years' Of Marriage

A Long-Buried Secret, Once Revealed, Rattles '45 Years' Of Marriage

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Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling play a married couple forced to reassess their relationship in Andrew Haigh's film, 45 Years. Sundance Films hide caption

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Sundance Films

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling play a married couple forced to reassess their relationship in Andrew Haigh's film, 45 Years.

Sundance Films

Director Andrew Haigh believes that age doesn't change a person's essential nature. "We get older and we get more wrinkles," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, "but fundamentally we stay the same. ... You have the same fears and doubts and concerns and dreams and passions and all those kinds of things, so I feel like you don't change as much as you think you do."

Perhaps this explains how Haigh, who is 42, was able to write and direct the story of a much older couple in his new film, 45 Years. "I just wrote these characters as if they were in their 40s. I didn't try and think about it too much. I think both [actors], Tom [Courtenay] and Charlotte [Rampling], found that very refreshing, reading the script."

In the film, Courtenay and Rampling play Geoff and Kate, a couple who are preparing for their 45th anniversary party when Geoff gets a letter about a woman he loved when he was a young man. Though the woman died before Geoff met Kate, Kate is devastated that Geoff never mentioned her before. Suddenly, both husband and wife begin to reassess not just their relationship, but also themselves and their identities.

Haigh says he sees the film as a meditation on the parts of themselves people share — as well as the parts of themselves they hold back.

"I think it's always interesting to me how we keep secrets from the ones we love the most," Haigh says. "You could be so close to someone, but still there was something you can't express, you can't tell them, because it's almost too painful and too hard for you to articulate yourself, because you don't fully understand it."

Interview Highlights

On how memory can be frozen in time

Andrew Haigh's previous projects include the film Weekend and the HBO series Looking. Sundance Films hide caption

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Sundance Films

Andrew Haigh's previous projects include the film Weekend and the HBO series Looking.

Sundance Films

I think it's amazing how those moments of our lives — they can be painful or they can be joyous or they can be whatever they are — but they become, like, solidified in a moment, and they can lodge themselves in your brain and they stay like that. Even if it's not entirely the truth about the event, they stay as some kind of weird thing in our brains, and they kind of linger and they come back when you least expect it.

I think also what's so strange about memory is it brings yourself back to that period, and it makes you kind of realize who you were at that point. I think for Geoff, for example, it's less even about this woman and this girl that he loved, but about who he was at that point and what he wanted his life to be, and having to live, having not to be frozen in the ice, you have to compromise. You have to make decisions and your life becomes something different. I find that very interesting — when you look back at memories, you almost remember yourself at that period and what you wanted then.

On coming out

I was quite old, I was, like, 24, 25, so it took a long time. There was a big version of me that people knew that wasn't that. It was someone that had girlfriends and all that kind of thing, so I had to kind of challenge that. Even with filmmaking, I never went to film school when I was young, I went to university and studied history; it was like no one thought that it was something I wanted to do, so I had to kind of do that as well. So I think constantly you're trying to reassess what you want, and some of your closest friends are like, "Wait, hold up, that's not the person I know, you're not that person."

On feeling like an outsider

Being gay, you're kind of forced to ask, I suppose, very existential questions from a very, very early age. Your identity becomes so important to you, because you're trying to understand it, and, I think, from the age of, like, 9 you're being forced to ask questions .... that other kids maybe don't have to ask. "Why am I feeling different? Why do I feel like an outsider? Why do I not fit in?"

I think you keep asking those questions, and then when you do come out it's a lot of people that have all been outsiders, and then they do want to make up their own rules, a little bit; they feel like they can make up their own rules. Again, I do feel like it's changing again. I feel like there's so much more acceptance now that those people are coming out earlier, they're not having to have those big questions as much anyway. ...

I remember coming out and thinking, "Oh, my god, finally, there's going to be a whole community that understands me." And then you come out and within about two weeks you realize it doesn't. And I remember being quite shocked by the fact that I felt actually just as much of an outsider within the gay community as I did [in] the non-gay community. I think the gay community is made up of so many little different things, different parts, different people. ... I think that can be quite hard for people. You think you've found your tribe, but actually that isn't your tribe, and then you have to keep searching for what kind of makes sense.

On the HBO show Looking

I think it was just about trying to show just how complicated it is for these people to work out what they want. I think for [the main character] Patrick especially, it's just a story about a character trying to be happy. It's as simple as that. He's really trying to work out what he needs to do to be happy, how he can develop a relationship, how he can sort out his work life, how he can sort out his friendships. ... I think it's just following those kind of complications.

It wasn't about making some grand statement about "this is what it means to be gay"; it was just about "this is what it means for these three people." It isn't just about the fact that they're gay. It's about a lot of other things, but being gay obviously factors into a lot of the parts of their lives. It was just really trying to do a character-based story.

On doing a film about a straight couple after gaining recognition for his work on movies and TV shows about gay people

I think some people were surprised. I think some people were a little bit kind of disappointed. I remembered being at a party and telling someone about this story, and they were like, "So who is gay in it?" I'm like, "No, nobody is gay." They're like, "So the husband's not gay secretly?" I'm like, "Nobody's gay in it." It was like I had turned my back on the gay film community for not making something that was gay.

I mean, for me, it was never a conscious decision to say, "I have to do something non-gay for my career." ... People always like to put you in a little kind of box. I understand that. I think we're all trying to parcel out the world to understand it a bit better, so I don't mind it.