The Past’s Unwelcome Grip

Charlotte Rampling in Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years.” | IFC FILMS/ SUNDANCE SELECTS

Charlotte Rampling in Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years.” | IFC FILMS/ SUNDANCE SELECTS

45 Years” is an affecting drama by out writer/ director Andrew Haigh (“Weekend,” “Looking”). When Geoff (Tom Courtenay) receives a letter containing news from his past, he and wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling) are forced to re-evaluate their marriage in the week leading up to a milestone wedding anniversary celebration. How the revelation in the letter taints their lives — eating away at both characters in different ways — forms the basis for this intimate, absorbing drama.

Haigh, adapting David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country,” employs superb control as a filmmaker, letting the tensions simmer before the quietly devastating ending. He recently spoke with Gay City News about making “45 Years.”

GARY M. KRAMER: What inspired you to make this film and adapt this story? Have you had something from the past influence your current relationship?

ANDREW HAIGH: I think the past always influences our relationships. We can’t escape our past no matter how much we want to. The story became lodged in my head. It’s a bookend to “Weekend.” That was a gay relationship looking forward and this is a straight relationship looking back. What appealed to me is that I could explore relationships, and our identities within relationships. I didn’t feel I had to put myself in the body of a 70-year-old to write it.

GMK: Your films “Weekend” and now “45 Years” are also mostly two-handers. What is the appeal of that narrative strategy of charting the gulf between two people over time, be it a weekend, a week, or longer?

AH: My interest in relationships is that for most of us, the relationships we have are the most important thing in our lives. That’s fertile ground for exploring characters and looking at people. But in cinema, they are put into romantic comedies. I’m interested in the relationship we have with other people, and I like the contained-ness of two-character stories.

I was telling “45 Years” over the course of a week. The couple is long lasting, but their relationship has this fragility to it. It could crumble and be thrown into doubt so quickly, we reassess our decisions and choices, which can throw our lives off balance or off course.

Andrew Haigh brings the intensity of his gaze to another two-character study

GMK: Was that a purposeful agenda in making a film about a straight couple? Did you feel pigeonholed as a gay filmmaker?

AH: I don’t think so. Before “Weekend” had even come out I wanted to make “45 Years.” It wasn’t a reaction to being classified as a queer filmmaker — I don’t mind that label, it doesn’t bother me. I have to ignore the boxes people put me in. I just want to tell stories that interest me. I don’t only want to tell gay stories. I want to tell different stories. Sometimes gay, sometimes not, but they will always have my perspective.

GMK: You create an incredible, intense intimacy in the film. Can you talk about that and how you created the film’s relentless tension?

AH: That’s the idea I like: it becomes a haunted house/ ghost story — the past has infected this house. There’s a strange growing tension and, like Kate, you are thrown off balance.

GMK: How did you become so observant of human nature? Your style is to linger on the characters, so we feel, we sense their every emotion.

AH: I don’t know. You look around, and in everyday life there is struggle and they are small in scale, but life is so difficult. I want to tell stories in a kind way, of us doing the best we can. I like to get up close and personal and feel that, and bring kindness to the characters as I explore that and watch them.

GMK: What decision did you make in the casting of Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay?

AH: We made a decision we wanted to cast Kate first, as she’s the driving force of the story. I wanted to make sure we had a strong female lead, and see her doubts and feelings crumble. Charlotte had that inner strength and she had a mystery to her, and I find that really interesting in a film — not really knowing people. The characters are trying to express their pain to each other, and Rampling can do that with a look or feeling. She has a mystery that draws you in, and you see this sympathy of emotion behind her eyes, and then she pushes you away.

With Tom, it was finding someone who is supportive of that. He has a sensitivity and vulnerability. In partnerships, the partner has that missing part of yourself. As actors and characters, Tom and Charlotte had that.

GMK: Do you feel that the choices we make taint our lives? Do you feel a partner is someone you should tell everything to?

AH: Unfortunately, I think it’s so difficult — the hardest thing is that we all have our individual pasts and feelings and doubts and fears and anxieties. Some things you shouldn’t articulate to your partner; you don’t want to risk that love or have them become unsettled or disappointed or broken by something you feel. In an ideal world you would be 100 percent honest with each other, but life doesn’t work quite that way. It’s impossible to put the past to rest. Every decision we make is based on our experience, despite self-help books promoting us to move on. The past will always come back and cause issues.

GMK: Anything you want to share from your past?

AH: [Laughs] No, probably not. There is a difference between being dishonest and having a past life. Some secrets or feelings we keep you can’t share because you can’t articulate how you feel about them. Life is complicated and messy.

GMK: Then let’s talk about the future. Can you report anything about “Looking for an Ending”?

AH: I’m shooting at the moment. You’ll have to wait and see.

45 YEARS | Directed by Andrew Haigh | IFC Films/ Sundance Selects | Opens Dec. 23 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St.;