Before last week, talk about Andrew Haigh's rich, slow-moving marital mystery, 45 Years, centered on its gorgeous cinematography and masterful acting by Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, elder statesmen of elite acting. The film is nominated for one Oscar, Actress in a Leading Role for Rampling, which is unsurprising. It screams Oscar. Elegant. Sad. British. Full of white people.
There's the rub: This year's Oscars are white. So white, you need sunglasses to look at arrays of nominee head shots. So white, people are boycotting, making hashtags, agitating for change.
"People," but not everybody. Rampling, for example, told French radio station Europe 1 that she thinks the backlash against the Oscars is "racist to white people" and that "We can never know…but perhaps the black actors did not deserve to be in the final straight." (She has since said her comments were "misinterpreted.")
It's inappropriate to write about the movie without at least mentioning that its lead said something racist. Because not to acknowledge your privileged position as a white person isn't great—but to openly deny it? That should be universally regarded as terrible.
But the movie, in which the willfully ignorant Rampling gives a great performance, isn't itself racist. It's good, in fact—haunting, slow, reserving its gut punches for silent, unexpected moments.
Before the Oscar nominations, the resulting backlash, and the backlash to the backlash, we spoke with director Andrew Haigh about the film and his decision to make Rampling such a focal point in it.
The story of a married couple confronting a secret buried in the Swiss ice is actually based on a short story, David Constantine's "Another Country," that features a man as its central character.
Haigh says he decided early on to tell the story from the perspective of the wife, who's grappling with the fact that her husband's first love died in a mountain crevasse. Rampling is at the center of the screen while Courtenay, her bumbling and distracted husband, lives on the periphery. He is even out of the frame in many scenes where he's present, and it is this purposefully blinkered perspective that makes the film so compelling.
"When you make that decision to tell it from a certain perspective, you try to find all the tools that you can, to make you realize that you are seeing this world through her eyes," Haigh says. "Keeping people out of the frame when you would normally have them in the frame is a good way to do that."
Rampling deftly leads the cast, and her character—a buttoned-up, childless woman on the verge of celebrating her 45th wedding anniversary to a man she suddenly doesn't know—is painfully real and quietly bleak, set perfectly in the film's flat landscape.
"The original story is set in Wales, which is full of mountains," Haigh says. "But the area that we set the film in is very flat and melancholy and strange almost. And I also just love this idea that the present of the story is very flat, and the past of the story is filled with mountains and glaciers and streams and waterfalls and things. I love that contradiction between the past and the present."
It's this pull between past and present that makes the film work. The present is a dull, wet, flat world inhabited by old people, and the past is a dramatic mountain range, where young and attractive people are filled with love but only ever seen at odd angles in a blurry slide show.
It's possible that Rampling's comments about the Oscars are also about this disconnect between a fantasy past and a real present. White people sometimes remember a magical past world that was "better" than this one. They imagine a time when people were judged only on their merits and those who were nominated for an award were genuinely the most deserving. White people won every time in that world, just by sheer ability. Of course, the movie industry's past was not idyllic for everyone. Nonwhite people were not only excluded from awards—they were excluded from Hollywood, from acting schools, from communities with the privilege of supporting someone following their dreams.
45 Years is a solid film, and Rampling certainly deserves her Oscar nomination. But when you watch it, remember that in 2015 there were almost no leading roles at all played by women of color. And it's impossible to win an award when there isn't even an opportunity to qualify.
Critic's Grade: A-
See IT: 45 Years is rated R. It opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.