The Layers of Love in Andrew Haigh's '45 Years'
Of all narrative themes, love is one that audiences do not tire of easily. However, it is rare for a film to capture depth and nuance comparable to Andrew Haigh’s film 45 Years. The film depicts an elderly couple – Geoff and Kate – in the lead up to the celebration of their forty-fifth anniversary. The couple’s relationship, initially portrayed as madly, though comfortably, in love, is complicated when news comes that a dead body has been recovered from a melting glacier. The central conceit of the film rests on the reveal of that body belonging to Geoff’s former lover, Katya. Kate, previously unaware of Katya’s existence, is troubled to discover Geoff’s relationship with Katya and the baby she was pregnant with at the time of her death. Through this discovery, the film is able to test different forms of love in a contained environment. The climax of the film – Kate and Geoff’s dance at their anniversary party – works as an intersection of the three primary kinds of love Haigh interrogates throughout the film. At an even narrower level, Haigh uses The Platters’ song “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” (here on referred to as “Smoke”) to anchor the climax of the film as a strategy for both contextualizing and uniting the three forms of love on display in the film.
First and foremost, 45 Years is a depiction of love endured. The audience meets Kate and Geoff as they are planning their forty-fifth wedding anniversary. This is the dominant narrative plane upon which the film operates. It also explains why Haigh would choose to end the film on Kate and Geoff’s dance at the party; this is the moment the film has been working toward. Earlier in the film, the audience sees Kate choose “Smoke” as the song they should dance to at the party. The choice plays into a prototypical, even superficial, narrative trope embodied by the first verse of the song: “They asked me how I knew / My true love was true / I of course replied / something here inside cannot be denied.” The love between Kate and Geoff is initially portrayed as so strong, so unwavering, that there is no question as to whether or not it is true. Love endured – for forty-five years – benefits from the privilege of being trusted. “Something here inside cannot be denied”; that something need not be explicitly defined, since it is defined by the time it has endured. If we are to view the scene as layered, which is most certainly is, this would be the first layer. This is the layer easily seen, observable to the audience. This is Haigh’s strategy for creating a base for grounding the conflict, originating with the reveal of Geoff’s love for Katya.
Contrasted against Kate and Geoff’s enduring love is the love discovered by Kate that Geoff shared with Katya, and thus, re-discovered by Geoff simultaneously. Unlike Kate’s relationship with Geoff – longstanding, comfortable, established – Geoff’s love for Katya is buried, encased by the passage of time. This inversion is on display in the climax as well, not just through Kate’s struggle, acted phenomenally by Charlotte Rampling, but again through The Platters’ song: “They said ‘someday you’ll find all who love are blind’ / When your heart’s on fire / You must realize, smoke gets in your eyes.” 45 Years depicts that Kate’s arrival at that certain “someday.” Her love for Geoff, endured for decades, blinded her from seeing his past. On that same token, Geoff’s love for both Katya and Kate blinded him from revealing one to the other. Played in any other film, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” would be taken only so far as to explain the madness of the love shared between two people, but Haigh uses it to contextualize the ironic distance between love endured and love discovered. Whereas Kate and Geoff’s love is initially portrayed as pure, unpolluted by the platitudes of faithfulness and dedication. Kate’s discovery of Katya spoils this pureness, revealing how it really hadn’t been pure to begin. It’s a matter of perspective: what Kate believed to be true was a symptom of the blindness she couldn’t escape. In this way, blindness referred to in the song is both an explanation of and an excuse for Kate and Geoff’s conflict.
Finally, Haigh uses “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” to contextualize the love that is lost over the course of the film. The film is a chronicle of Kate’s loss of love, not wholly, but partially, for her husband. This is evidenced most clearly by the moment she rips her hand away from Geoff as he holds it above their heads in front of the crowd at their anniversary party. She makes the decision to place a physical distance between them at a moment that should represent the pinnacle of their togetherness. It is this physical break that works to symbolize the emotional distance between them. Haigh uses this moment to its full effect by tying it in with the end of the second verse of “Smoke”: “Yet today my love has flown away / I am without my love.” These lines intimate a meaning parallel to Kate’s decision to pull away from Geoff. They refer to “love” having “flown away” – this can and should be read both literally and figuratively as love having been lost when the truth is revealed.
Films use music cues in a variety of ways, but most frequently they are used to establish a certain mood or tone. Andrew Haigh’s use of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” represents the rare decision to use a song as a supplement to the thematic text of the film. Moreover, Haigh’s use of the song operates on not just one narrative plane, but three: love endured, love discovered, and love lost. Haigh crafts each of these narratives with deftness and subtly, winding them tightly within one another, until the climax where they finally burst out and unfurl across Kate’s face as “Smoke” plays over the scene. The final verse of the song, the one that plays immediately before Kate breaks away from Geoff, reads: “Now laughing friends deride / tears I cannot hide / So I smile and say / When a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes.” Kate ends the film swathed in the blue light – the color of smoke – of a dying flame. She stands at an intersection and Haigh refuses to give the audience any clue as to where she might turn. Instead, he focuses, with honesty and poignance, on Kate’s struggle – contextualized by Haigh’s use of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”