Charlotte Rampling says her new film 45 Years — the story of a married older couple whose 45-year relationship hits a crisis when a long-hidden secret is revealed just before their anniversary — is not about what you might think. “It’s not a film about age at all. It’s not a film about older people necessarily. You’re not thinking about the fact that they’re older people. You’re thinking about actually what they’re going through,” she told me recently over lunch in West Hollywood with her co-star Tom Courtenay.
Whatever the age, the movie that was directed and written by 42-year-old Andrew Haigh, has been hitting a nerve and lots of people — of different ages — are finding something relatable about it all. The Sundance Selects release just opened over the Christmas weekend to an encouraging box office reception in the U.S., but it has been scooping up awards ever since its debut last February at the Berlin Film Festival where both Rampling and Courtenay won Best Actress and Best Actor Silver Bears — a rare double feat at that fest. Since then the movie has been on the festival circuit, and Rampling recently picked up Best European Actress at the European Film Awards and Los Angeles and Boston critics group kudos for her leading role, as well as a Critics’ Choice nomination.
In the film she plays Kate, a childless married woman whose marriage is thrown for a loop when a letter arrives for her husband Geoff saying a frozen body of his former girlfriend has been found. She had fallen while they were on a hike in a snowy area nearly a half century before, but this letter unlocks secrets never shared between this couple about to celebrate their 45th anniversary at the end of the week with a big party. It is a fascinating premise, but Rampling had no idea it would be getting this kind of recognition — and now Oscar buzz. “It just shows the magic of film,” she laughed. “We had no idea what actually would get through to an audience.” Courtenay agreed. “Yeah I think people do seem to relate it to their own lives, a lot of couples.”
Rampling was thrilled when Courtenay was cast. “I knew him and I completely could believe that I could be with Tom 45 years. I had to really believe this as a person and act it. If the audience does not feel we are a couple for 45 years, but rather just two actors acting it, then you don’t have a film,” she said. In the movie they actually have a very funny almost sex scene, but he says apparently they had different ideas of how it went. “I got terribly upset when recently Charlotte said she found it very difficult, because I found it a lot of fun. I really did. I was strutting around in my underpants,” Courtenay laughed. “If anything, it was a sex scene that you could say was not gratuitous. That’s why I was utterly comfortable with the way that we were talking to each other.”
Rampling, who turns 70 in February, actually sees 45 Years as a companion piece of sorts to a brilliant 2000 French film she made called Under The Sand in which a woman’s longtime husband suddenly disappears after going for a swim in the ocean while his wife sits on the beach. She calls them sister films because while she was making 45 Years she kept thinking of Under The Sand and all the questions it brought to the surface about marriage and relationships.
Rampling, who speaks fluent French, lives in France and has made several films there, as well as her native England, and even in Hollywood films like The Verdict opposite Paul Newman and Farewell My Lovely with Robert Mitchum. She burst on to the scene in the mod ’60s world of British cinema in movies like The Knack and Georgy Girl and had a major breakthrough starring with Dirk Borgarde in the then-X rated film The Night Porter which brought her international fame.
Although both British actors have been making movies and gaining acclaim since beginning their film careers over a half century ago, they had never really shared a film credit until 2013’s Night Train To Lisbon — they had no scenes together. Courtenay, now 78, initially drew major notice in early ’60s films like The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, Billy Liar and King Rat. He won the first of two Oscar nominations for his supporting turn in 1965’s David Lean epic Doctor Zhivago and the other in 1983 for his leading role opposite Albert Finney in The Dresser. In the latter, both cancelled each other out and the Oscar went to Robert Duvall in Tender Mercies. Courtenay said there was talk of campaigning him for supporting actor that year so he wouldn’t have to compete with his co-star, but it didn’t come to pass. (Ironically, there was talk among the Oscar consultants for 45 Years about also putting him in support this year since the thrust of the movie really belongs to Rampling’s character, but the powers that be decided against that move and are pushing him in the lead category. He says those decisions are not his to make.)
Rampling , rather incredibly, has never been Oscar-nominated, but betting among many pundits is that could be changing this year. If actors branch members see 45 Years it is hard to imagine she won’t be among the Best Actress Oscar nominees when they are announced January 14. Her performance is luminous, one that says more in one look than endless pages of dialogue. But for her it is not all about the work , and certainly not the accolades. “I’m on a particular journey that is about really only doing the things that I feel intimately, or a connection with, but not from an acting point of view. From all the other things too, that it sort of connects to the world I live in. I’m not a career person. I just want to do work that sort of feels that it is worth doing,” she said.
There can be no question that for both Rampling and Courtenay, two veteran pros who know their way around a good script, 45 Years was definitely “worth doing.”