45 Years (M). Director: Andrew Haigh. Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay. 95 minutes
'If you take the life lie from an average man, you take away his happiness as well.' So opines Relling, a character in Henrik Ibsen's 1884 play The Wild Duck. The play tests this theory against the experiences of an essentially contented blue-collar family when a well-meaning friend, believing in the liberating power of truth, chooses to reveal a long-concealed secret. The revelation in fact wreaks destruction; tragedy is the punchline of Ibsen's bleak parody of empty idealism.
A new Australian film, The Daughter, shares a direct lineage to The Wild Duck: it is an adaptation by first-time film director Simon Stone of his own Helpmann Award winning stage adaptation of Ibsen's play, which transposed the drama from 19th century Norway to modern, small-town Australia. Heavy in style and tone, it is elevated by gripping performances, notably from Ewen Leslie as the 'average man' husband-and-father who is devastated by the brutal undoing of his 'life-lie'.
The Daughter finds an unexpected counterpart in — and, through comparision, helps to illuminate — 45 Years, British filmmaker Andrew Haigh's adaptation of David Constantine's short story 'In Another Country'. It centres on Kate (Rampling) and Geoff (Courtenay) Mercer, an ageing, childless Norfolk couple on the brink of celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary. As Kate goes about planning a party, news arrives that the body of Katya, Geoff's long-dead first love, has been discovered in a Swiss glacier.
The 'life-lie' here proves to be not a concealment but rather a pragmatic minimisation of truth. Geoff asks Kate if he ever told her about Katya: 'Yes,' says Kate. 'I'm sure I told you about my Katya,' Geoff repeats. The repeated question and possessive pronoun immediately indicate that this news might be more than a minor shock for Geoff. Kate is initially supportive, yet as the days pass and Geoff's plaintive mood intensifies, the true dimensions of his feelings for the departed Katya emerge.
Where The Daughter is heavily emotive, 45 Years is mild in tone, but no less compelling for it. Kate and Geoff live among The Broads of eastern Norfolk, and Lol Crawley's beautifully composed cinematography frames them standing against or moving through that bucolic landscape; just as the landscape is wide-open and ever, subtly changing, so too the faces of the two actors reveal far more than is communicated with words. (The performances are sublime.)
Yet still, in its writing and construction, the film skilfully conceals Geoff from us, as it does from Kate, even when they are in the same room. He is off camera at the precise moment when he receives the news about Katya, just beyond the edge of the frame, which centres on Kate idly rinsing dishes. In the same way it portrays Kate's private moments and hides Geoff's, so that even when they are in open dialogue (and their conversations are indeed open, and intimate), he seems part enigma.
The Daughter, like the play that inspired it, ends in tragedy; 45 Years though hits no such sensational peaks. The disruption of the Mercers' life-lie comes not in the form of shocking revelation, but slow-dawning realisation; not that Geoff isn't the man he purported to be, but that Kate may not be what she believed herself to be, to him. The eventual ramifications of this for their marriage remain unspoken. But as is only fitting, the film's final, wordless moments speak volumes.
Tim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.