Andrew Haigh’s quietly powerful new drama is set during a single week, and explores the stability of a couple’s relationship in rural Norfolk as they approach their 45th wedding anniversary (their 40th had to be cancelled at the last minute as a result of health problems). This long, seemingly untroubled marriage is suddenly threatened when surprise news arrives from abroad, and using an episodic, day-by-day structure Haigh’s screenplay – adapted from a short story by David Constantine – intelligently concentrates on the rippling after effects in a subtle manner, relying for the most part on implication as opposed to confrontation. Charlotte Rampling is in terrific form as retired schoolteacher Kate, while Tom Courtenay also excels as her husband Geoff, a retired manager; they picked up the Best Actress and Best Actor awards at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, and will hopefully win more accolades when the American and British award season kicks off in earnest at the beginning of 2016.
The news comes in the form of a letter. Kate arrives home after her daily walk with the couple’s dog to find Geoff in a state of shock at the kitchen table. It turns out that his former love Katya died in a mountaineering accident in the Alps over 50 years earlier, and the body has only just been discovered, frozen in ice all this time and only revealed because the snow covering the ice has thawed. Geoff sits at the table holding the letter and refers to ‘My Katya’, while his behaviour becomes erratic: at first it’s just a return to an old habit (smoking) but shortly thereafter he borrows books from the library on climate change, sprays Katya’s old brand of perfume in the house and enters the loft in the middle of the night to search through mementos. His attention is diverted from the impending anniversary in rural England to the mountains of Switzerland and the fate of his former lover, while Kate’s concerns about Geoff’s behaviour and the state of their marriage grow as the days pass. Conversations are dominated by the subject of Katya while coincidences begin to rattle Rampling’s character, and are subtly incorporated into proceedings by Haigh: she backs away, mildly irritated, from a painting of the Alps on the wall of the venue they’ve hired for the anniversary bash, for example, and impatiently switches the car radio off when Gary Puckett and the Union Gap’s hit Young Girl is played. Poignant lyrics continue to unsettle Kate as the week goes on. The filmmaker chooses familiar old favourites like The Turtles’ Happy Together or The Platters’ Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, but rather than simply using these as pleasantly innocuous background tunes each song causes Kate to address the state of her relationship after all these years, and to ponder just how well she knows her husband.
As the days progress and Geoff’s actions become more erratic, it’s perhaps obvious that a climax will arrive during their anniversary party, but Haigh builds towards this denouement in pleasingly subtle ways. The days are introduced with title cards and a shot of Kate walking the dog, though the distance between her and her canine friend seems to grow every 24 hours. Meanwhile Geoff makes greater attempts to reassure and accompany his wife as the story moves toward the weekend, but a further discovery of a secret and its implications with regard to the early years of the marriage complicates things even more. Throughout Haigh marks the passing of time in a number of ways, whether it’s bells chiming in the background in the city, Kate staring at a window full of watches as she contemplates buying an anniversary present, or Geoff’s assertion that he doesn’t like to know what the time is. There is a sense here that minutes and days matter just as much as years and decades, and the length of the marriage counts for less than you would expect as both parties continue to change or the dynamic of such a union continues to evolve, even after 45 years. Complementing the superb acting and direction is Lol Crawley’s cinematography, which highlights the natural beauty of Norfolk’s flat (and tellingly very un-Alps-like) countryside. However the final words here should reiterate that Rampling’s acting is exemplary, and she has given us a special performance that ought to be discussed for many a year: it’s filled with small gestures, brief (but never overplayed) looks of anguish and her handling of the natural, realistic dialogue is flawless.
Directed by: Andrew Haigh.
Written by: Andrew Haigh. Based on In Another Country by John Constantine.
Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay.
Cinematography: Lol Crawley.
Editing: Jonathan Alberts.
Running Time: 95 minutes.