Watching 45 Years now evokes the times we are living in today. Our lives as well as our assumptions about our lives were upended by the pandemic. They have been upended a second time as the hope that speedy vaccination drives would eliminate the virus appears to fade away in the face of a nightmarish second wave. And it all started with a few cases in Wuhan, China. The few cases that snowballed into a monster that has shaken the world, indeed paralysed it in some ways.
This is where what happens in 45 Years is a metaphor for our times. A long-surviving marriage. A childless one but one that is nevertheless a happy one by all appearances. And one in which the couple is about to celebrate their 45th anniversary. Kate, the wife, doesn't know that all of this is about to be upended when a letter written in German arrives from Switzerland.
It's about Katya, her husband Geoff's ex-flame. Katya's body has been discovered intact, frozen in ice, after all these years.
Geoff had told her previously about Katya. So, it should be a non-event, really. And yet, it is anything but. Geoff starts talking a lot about Katya and initially considers going over to Switzerland to look at her body (an idea he eventually drops). He also tells her he is legally Katya's next of kin, which Kate had never been told. And then, he climbs into the loft to look for some pictures. This he does in the middle of the night after an unsatisfying episode of sex between the couple.
After this, Kate is no longer able to get on with things on an even keel anymore (incidentally, this is often depicted in very subtle ways, like a perceptible increase in the speed at which Kate drives her car as she brings Geoff back home from a get-together he had attended – there is no shot from the driver's seat and yet we can feel this surge in speed), because things increasingly do not appear as they seem and she discovers more stuff about the Katya affair that Geoff hadn't told her. She also discovers how Geoff had organised their lives around his affair with Katya, down to filling their home with Katya's favourite perfume.
Kate is no longer certain if she is merely living the marriage Geoff never had with Katya or if he genuinely does love her. He insists that he does. And he has 45 years of faithfulness to show for it. But omitting to divulge certain significant facts about his relationship with Katya to Kate all these years has shattered her trust in him. The question isn't what the import of all that she has learnt now is. The question is what else she has yet learn about him in the days to come. And could she bear to learn anything more along these lines? But if she can't, does she have a choice?
Aptly enough, the film doesn't answer these questions and leaves us with a tantalising ending. In modern society, a woman may be free to leave a man without attracting judgment. But that does not mean the choice would be entirely devoid of material consequences. Just as we don't know whether there is an end in sight to the menace of COVID, just as we can't bear how it has impacted our lives but have no choice but to soldier on, so maybe Kate will have to put up with Geoff after all even if she can't bear to, even if he is prepared to make a fresh start as he promises to.
The omission of a few seemingly small but highly pertinent details about a relationship that met its tragic end decades ago now comes to haunt a long and extremely stable marriage. That's all it takes in the end.
One act of deceit can break hard-earned trust. Just as a few cases of a new strain of coronavirus conquered the world. And in nation after nation, leaders insisted things would be all right when the first few cases were reported. Until they weren't and even highly capable leaders were pulled down at least a notch from their pedestal.
Forget high-level talk. Let's talk about an example from Mumbai. The popular Jumbo King chain had a very, very busy outlet at Vashi railway station. I have rarely not had to wait in queue to place my order whenever I visited it to fetch a quick snack. A few weeks back, I travelled by local train for the first time since March 2020. And as I walked out of Vashi station, I saw the Jumbo King store being emptied out. It was closing. That's it. A few brutal months in 2020 had destroyed all the success the business had built over many, many years.
You never know when the rug could get pulled from under your feet. And as 45 Years shows, it doesn't take a pandemic for that to happen. One innocent missive from a far-off land could be just as lethal, as Geoff and Kate learn the hard way.