Retirement can be a dicey proposition despite its seductive call. Advertisements for superannuation companies extol the joys of retirement, epitomising the popular dream people have of a golden age where they blissfully have nothing they really have to do and they can do whatever they like.
Certainly many retirees, who have thrown off the working saddle and who are in a good financial position absolutely love doing whatever they like. They go on cruises, go traveling and camping, visit art galleries or the cinema with friends or just potter around at home doing the gardening, reading what interests them and at night, turning off the light to sleep until another equally glorious day of their permanent holiday awaits them.
But there is a dark side to this golden dream. Retirement also means the endgame of a long life and a kind of reckoning with unfulfilled threads of yearnings, actions and events occasioning deep trauma or guilt and painful losses that have lain suppressed, dormant and deep beneath the surface – until now. What do we do with the last act of our lives? Many people flounder at the sense of disempowerment and lack of purpose that retiring from a lifetime occupation brings and may suffer depression (at least for a time) as a result.
The beginning of the film ’45 Years’ opens to a bright, sunshiny but cold morning in the country, where a retired couple of some years, Kate and Geoff Mercer, live in their comfortable home. The landscape is lovely and all is peaceful, but there is a sense of baffled expectancy about the day’s existence as if the people who live in it can do anything they like but they actually don’t do anything much at all. At this stage of their lives, Kate and Geoff seem to have had had days and days and days like this.
Kate, is out warmly wrapped in a coat, her breath in mist, walking the dog. She is a lithe, slim, good-looking woman on the verge of old age, all smiles for the young postman, but with the air of a long-term melancholic, locked in polite mode. They exchange friendly greetings, Kate congratulating him on him and his wife’s new baby. She tells him to call her Kate, saying gaily in parting ‘we’re not at school anymore!’.
Back home she briskly greets her husband Geoff, white-haired and fragile despite his substantial appearance, who is sitting at the breakfast table of their sunny kitchen with a letter. She asks him about a song they could have played for their upcoming 45th wedding anniversary celebration, but it soon becomes apparent that Geoff has another and much more serious matter on his mind.
‘They’ve found Katya’ he tells her in his cracked voice, waving the letter ‘You do know who I’m talking about?’. Kate does and is immediately all solicitous attention, but a cool shadow has fallen over their placid, apparently contented noonday lives. A shadow that darkens as the film goes on.
Katya had been Geoff’s partner in the days before he met and married Kate. Like many young people they were backpackers and they had traveled to the Alps in Switzerland. Somewhere in this icy, mountainous terrain, a tragic accident had happened. Katya had fallen through a hole in a bridge and plunged to her death in a glacier far below.
50 years later to the day we meet Kate and Geoff, the Swiss authorities had written to notify Geoff that they had located the body, perfectly preserved and suspended in ice. Rattled, Geoff goes outside for a cigarette despite having given up. Kate carries on making the arrangements for their upcoming celebration, choosing the venue, going shopping with her friends, looking for something to wear, talking to everybody with that perfectly crafted politeness, but easy self-assurance of a woman long accustomed to receiving compliments for her beauty.
But in the following days, these attempts at normalcy become the stilted facade of a marriage falling into disarray and deep, black, bubbling trouble. Bit by bit, things about the tragedy that Geoff has not told Kate comes out: he had been her next of kin and the couple had pretended to be married. He goes to the library and borrows books on global warming, obsessing himself with the effects of climate change on glaciers. He keeps going up to the attic, where he evidently keeps pictures and memorabilia of Katya there. He admits to Kate that he would have married Katya. Finally, Kate, fed up, draws a line in the sand, telling him that she can’t talk about the subject anymore.
There is more to come, however. When Geoff is absent, Kate goes to the attic and discovers a secret shrine to Katya’s memory, complete with a rotary projector of picture slides and the most knockout blow of all to childless Kate is the clear evidence of the dead Katya’s burgeoning pregnancy. The boil lying in the darkness below their happy marriage has surfaced. Kate’s smooth confidence that she knows her husband absolutely is absolutely shattered.
All kinds of things about the state of their marriage seem to become clear. The days up to the looming celebration become a nightmare. Geoff had talked to Kate of having lost a certain sense of purpose he had had when he was young and in love with Katya. He says that even if they had no idea of what to do in a day, that it would seem just as purposeful as when they set out to do something. He supposed that people lost their sense of purpose when they got older, but had he, in all the adult years after Katya’s death just been in a somnambulistic state of suspended animation?
Kate and Geoff had met some five years after the tragedy. ‘You were a bloody knockout!’ Geoff tells her in a rare moment of fun. ‘You were so cool!’ replied Kate. But somehow over the years Geoff had shed his beatnik ways and donned convention, having worked for years as a manager at a nearby manufacturing plant. He had tempered his dislike for Kate’s bourgeoisie friends with the occasional grumble. Their life together was strangely uneventful. Neither of them in conversation can remember anything much about it out of the ordinary. They didn’t even have photos on the wall. In a failed attempt at lovemaking, Kate asks him to open his eyes. Had he been imagining Katya in Kate’s place all this time?
And what of Kate? Since Geoff’s heart attack some years before, she seems to have taken over the role of nursing Geoff and all her relations with him appear stilted with an affected display of civility and solicitude concealing a nervous over-eager desire to please. She jumps instantly to his aid when he cuts his hand mending the toilet, but she talks to him with her mouth still full. She tells him what he can’t do – smoke, return to mountainous Switzerland, read Kierkegaard past the second chapter. And yet she struggles to have a creative life of her own.
As Kate sees it, Geoff for his part clings to her like a drowning man. Not, that she is the love of his life, but that he has never been able to cope with the cataclysm of losing his first love. She had been merely a distraction, a substitute. In an explosive confrontation the day before their celebration, Kate bitterly tells him that she knows she has never been enough for him, but that she could not bear the pain and humiliation of other people knowing that as well.
So they go to the celebration, Kate smilingly accompanying her husband hand in hand, only looking death-like for a few moments of privacy in the restroom mirror. But can she really endure playing the part of the loving wife, receiving Geoff’s stumbling, pathetic, platitudinous speech and dancing together to the banal song that played when they first met and see him going through that whole grotesque act of faked adoration before her, as he had always had the whole length of their marriage? Could she really take it anymore?