Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 35 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 0; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 3.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance…
The film’s title refers to the length of time that Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) have been married. They are planning to celebrate with a big catered party. It should be the occasion for the laughing and dancing mentioned in the Scripture passage, but the arrival of a letter to Geoff turns it into a time for mourning and doubting, especially for Kate. As their story unfolds we wonder, “Will they stay together for a 50th year celebration?”
Director/writer Andrew Haigh bases his film on David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country“ which is included in the collection Under the Dam. The retired couple, she from school teaching and he from managing a factory, live in a lovely rural home close to Norfolk, England. Their rambling house is adjacent to fields and woods as well as the town, thus conducive to long walks. Childless, they have only their frisky dog Max, plus a large collection of friends. Their intended 40th celebration was cancelled because George had to undergo a heart bypass operation, so the coming party is to make up for that. Then comes the letter from Switzerland with its surprising news.
Fifty years earlier Geoff and his girl friend Katya had been hiking in Europe. While in the Swiss Alps Katya had disappeared from sight when she fell into a deep snow-filled crevice. Now the Swiss authorities have sent the letter informing him that the snow had melted and her body has at last been located. Embedded in thick ice, it has been preserved all these years. They have sent the letter to Geoff because his name was on her death certificate, and they are inviting him to come to identify the body.
Both assume he will not go to Switzerland. That was a long time ago they say, the two of them since having experienced a lifetime of intimacy. Their retired life has been an enjoyable one of walks; lunching with good friends; sharing afternoon tea, and at bedtime reading a good book. But Geoff begins to act in ways that are disturbing to Kate, whose very name must remind him of Katya. He sneaks off to smoke again. Becomes distant and irritable. She discovers he has crept up the pull-down ladder to rummage through his things in the attic, taking out a picture of him and his girlfriend. Before long the worried Kate is also sneaking an occasional cigarette.
When she climbs up into the attic, she is shocked to discover he has saved a scrapbook filled with photos, postcards, ticket stubs, and notes that reveal he was far more light-hearted with Katya than he had ever been with her.
In the scene that probably earned Ms. Rampling her Oscar nomination, she places a tray of old slides in a projector and shows them on a stretched out old tablecloth. Although we see just a portion of a slide, enough to realize that most are of Katya, the camera focuses upon Ms. Rampling’s face. Surprise; pain; regret; and perhaps jealousy—all causing her to doubt the value and meaning of the 45 years of togetherness they are about to celebrate. The phone rings, and she climbs down to answer it. It is the party’s emcee calling to find out what songs she wants played. In a supreme show of self control Kate gathers her thoughts and goes down the list of songs.
The film builds toward a dramatic climax when Kate, while visiting the town, stops in the travel agency to ask if a man of Geoff’s description had been in. (he had a little earlier gone off on a walk by himself.) When she discovers that he has indeed been there discussing a trip to Switzerland, we think we know the answer to the old question, “Can this marriage be saved?” Adding to Kate’s growing doubts is her husband’s honest answer to her question about whether or not he would have married Katya had she lived. However, something else counters this. The two, reminiscing about their past, mention that they have almost no photographs of themselves. With no children, Geoff says that there seemed to have been no need for pictures, and so he had long ago stored their camera in the attic. Then, at the party—yes they do make it this far—they see something that brings a new awareness of all the years they have spent together, something that makes up for their own lack of a pictorial record of their past life together. The climax that quickly follows is touching, one that will cause you to treasure this little film long after any memory of most the blockbusters now showing have faded into their deserved oblivion.
This is a wonderful story of an older couple reassessing their life together and discovering how little they really know each other, even after 45 years. This is something that most couples whose marriages last beyond the hand full of years of so many marriages must go through: the assessment of shared experiences; the question of what if? We might wish that they had shared a meaningful faith, but there is little evidence of such. Without any of the ties that belonging to a church might have offered, all they have is each other and some good memories. The musical selections, such as The Turtle’s “Happy Together” suggest that they did indeed share some good times, and,” the Moody Blues’ “Go Now,” along with what happens at the party, lead us to believe that there might still be hope for them.
This film with a set of discussion questions will be in the March 2016 issue of Visual Parables.