Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay exemplified the British New Wave of the ’60s.
Courtenay first captured attention in Tony Richardson’s “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (1962), arguably the best of Britain’s “angry young man” films. Rampling’s star rose a bit later, in a pivotal supporting part in one of the swinging ’60s definitive films, “Georgy Girl” (1966). Even though they were contemporaries, they’d never worked together until British writer-director Andrew Haigh cast them as Kate and Geoff Mercer in “45 Years.”
“Neither of us was overused, in a sense. We came from the same country, we started more or less around the same time in films, our paths were parallel but hadn’t actually crossed,” says Rampling. “I have not made that many films and [Courtenay] stopped making films for a while when he went into theater. And roles don’t necessarily come up out of the blue. So all these years later, here we are.”
Haigh based his film on the short story “In Another Country” by David Constantine but shifted the focus to Kate’s point of view. It opens with Geoff receiving a letter informing him that the body of his former girlfriend, who fell to her death while they were mountain climbing in Switzerland before he met Kate, has been discovered preserved in ice. The revelation that a woman Geoff loved in his youth is somehow back, a renewed psychological presence literally frozen in time, throws the marriage into crisis just before Kate and Geoff’s 45th wedding anniversary party.
The veteran British stars have reaped critical accolades since “45 Years” premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, which awarded them its top acting honors. Rampling, who’ll turn 70 in February, earned her first-ever Oscar nomination for the role on Thursday, after recently being named the year’s best actress by both the Boston Society of Film Critics and the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. “45 Years” opens in the Boston area on Friday.
Wanting known actors for the film, Haigh contacted Rampling first. He sent her the script for “45 Years” and a DVD of his 2011 film “Weekend,” about two gay men whose hookup develops into something more.
“I was immediately impressed by the script because it is exactly the type of work that I really do like and that you don’t come across that much at all. It was such a sensitive story and I saw how well he understood relationships,” says Rampling. “I knew from ‘Weekend’ his potential. Then I spoke to him on the telephone for a long time because he was in San Francisco doing [the HBO series] ‘Looking’ and I just fell in love with him over the phone. I said, ‘Whoa, off we go.’ ”
Rampling says Courtenay, 78, was Haigh’s first choice to play Geoff and she agreed. “I thought it was an amazing idea. We hoped we’d get him and we did. Tom works beautifully as my mate. I just knew he really would.”
Haigh, interviewed at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, thought it was “kind of perfect” that his stars hadn’t been in a film together. “If they had, that would be too much cinematic past,” he says.
Not unexpectedly for a film about the passing of time and the nuances of a long marriage, it continues to resonate. Rampling was doing press for “45 Years” just weeks after losing her longtime partner, Jean-Noel Tassez, who died in October.
“I like the fact that I have this film now. The content of the film and what it has represented is certainly something to hold onto,” she says during a phone interview.
Courtenay, also interviewed at TIFF, drew on his own marriage since 1988 to Isabel Crossly, a stage manager at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, where Courtenay has often performed. “My wife thinks it’s about us. Couples do think the film is about them,” he says. “Isabel stood over me while I read the script and she said, ‘no chance you’re getting out of this one.’ It’s me, there it is. It’s natural to think back, to the road not taken. Geoff can’t help thinking, ‘Gosh, what would my life have been?’ ”
Haigh may be just 42, but both Courtenay and Rampling laud his insight about relationships and his honesty about sexuality. When was the last time a movie depicted intimacy between 70-somethings, not for laughs but as a major plot point?
“Sex in a relationship is usually an attempt to reconnect,” says Haigh. “You hardly ever see that in films. It’s usually affairs, or at the beginning [of the relationship]. What about when you’ve been together for years and have sex once a month, if you’re lucky? I love seeing slightly older bodies having sex. I don’t understand why we’re so desperate to stay young. An older body is just as attractive; it’s just different attractiveness.”
Rampling has never shied from nudity or sexuality on screen, even as she’s grown older. She welcomed a fearless portrayal of all aspects of aging and marriage. “There are so many of us out there now, of this age. We’re fine, we’re in good health, we’re older but we still feel young,” she says. “That’s a huge population out there for these films.”
Surprisingly for such a long career, Courtenay says he’d never done a sex scene and relished the chance. “I loved it. I had a ball. It was not at all gratuitous; it was about them trying to recapture their youth,” he says. “Rex Reed wrote that ‘Tom and Charlotte are still sexy.’ I told Andrew, better to still be sexy than to have done a masterpiece.”Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.