When a Lovely Flame Dies: The Climactic Heartbreaker in 45 Years

Some songs are so beautiful that it takes six or seven or fifty listens before you really hear the words. High on the list of the greatest American songwriters, Jerome Kern crafted many such melodies: perfect enough to momentarily short-circuit the more analytical parts of the brain while zapping the pleasure centers to life. So when you finally allow lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II’s romantic exaltations to shine through Kern’s effortlessly descending chords in “All the Things You Are” (“You are the promised kiss of springtime / that makes the lonely winter seem long”), it moves beyond pleasure into revelation. This is especially the case with Kern’s rightly beloved “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” a pop chestnut so flawlessly composed, and whose swooning major-chord ascent is so heavenly, that one could easily overlook the unsettling ambiguity of Otto Harbach’s lyrics, which flicker between the fiery passion of first love and the smoldering ash of wistfulness and regret.

It’s this combination that makes it an apt anthem for 45 Years. Andrew Haigh’s heartsick portrait of a very difficult week in the life of a long-married Norfolk couple—at the end of which beckons an elaborate anniversary party five years shy of their golden—refuses to fall into the mollifying gentility that typifies many films about people past middle age. There’s nothing adorable here, just a quick cut-to-the-heart rendering of the crippling unknowability of human desire and regret that can keep even the closest people at a distance from one another. The plot is told with scalpel precision: in the first scene, we barely have time to register the comfortable domestic routine of Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) before it’s already disrupted. A letter is delivered from Switzerland, informing Geoff that the body of a woman named Katya has been discovered in a glacier, her corpse frozen for decades. This, Kate recalls, was Geoff’s first love; she had disappeared right before his eyes so many years ago, fallen through a crack in the ice, summarily and cruelly erased from the world. It’s a memory that Kate has perhaps hoped Geoff has repressed, especially since their marriage is a strong and loving one, either despite or because of their lack of children. Yet it’s clear from Geoff’s increasingly haunted desperation throughout the ensuing days after receiving the letter that the repressed has indeed returned, and that, for Kate, an encroaching horror has invaded their otherwise beautiful home: the idea that Geoff may have loved another more deeply.

With her heavy eyelids and trembling cheeks, Rampling makes subtly visible the creeping realization of her seemingly loving husband’s distance from her. Like Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, 45 Years is a film about a marriage put in jeopardy by something so dastardly simple as a thought; just as that film’s Dr. Bill Harford is sent into spirals of agonizing self-doubt by his wife’s articulation of a sexual fantasy that never even was, Kate is emotionally decimated by the idea that her husband may have all along been imagining an alternative reality with Katya. Had the woman not missed her step and fallen, preserved for eternity as a symbol of a road not taken, where would Kate be today? Who would Kate be today? And then, the terrifying question: who is Kate? Haigh doesn’t follow a simple trajectory toward this aging woman’s self-actualization, but rather palpates the edges of her disillusionment.

To all appearances, there is clear adoration and admiration between Kate and Geoff. Only a cold viewer would deny that these two have clearly loved one another for many years, and the loss of mutual love, even in the smallest way, is devastating. One way they have defined their connection, the film makes clear, is through a shared love of music. At their happiest moment—a brief moment of hopeful union in the film’s first third—we see them shaking a tailfeather in the living room to Lloyd Price’s energetic R&B standard “Stagger Lee.” Throughout, Kate recurringly talks about the playlist for their upcoming anniversary party, which will end up as more of an inexorable, dreaded climax than the intended celebration. Many titles are bandied about as possibilities, traditionally ecstatic love-is-everything Motown and Brit pop tunes of the sixties like the Turtles’ “Happy Together,” Marvin Gaye’s “Your Precious Love,” Jackie Wilson’s “Higher and Higher.” Yet it’s the Platters’ rendition of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” that’s most essential—despite the fact that its lyrics make it an oddly gloomy song for the occasion. Then again, maybe they never really listened to the words.

Though we don’t hear it until the end, it’s there from the beginning. Kate’s first line of dialogue to her husband, after picking up the mailman’s fateful delivery, is “What do you think of that Platters song?” For this briefest of moments in the film she’s carefree, musing to Geoff about what should accompany their first dance at the party. Listen closely and you can hear Rampling humming and singing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” a bit to herself as she fills herself a glass of water at the sink. “They asked me how I knew, my true love was true . . .” Then, in the same shot, the camera moves back to Geoff at the kitchen table, opening the letter informing him of Katya’s discovery.

One of the loveliest mysteries embedded in Kern and Harbach’s song comes with its very first word. Who are they, and why are they presumptuously asking me how I knew my true love was true? It’s a world of doubters and unromantics, and those of us who feel passionate, fiery love must defend ourselves against all comers. The singer of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”—whether it’s the deep-throated, witchily continental Gertrude Niesen in the original 1933 version from the show it was written for, Roberta; the trilling Tamara Drasin in a hit recording with Leo Reisman and His Orchestra; or a soaring Irene Dunne in the 1935 film version of Roberta—is tasked with giving full-throated defense. It’s a standard that’s been performed by Nat King Cole, Dinah Washington, Charlie Parker, Jo Stafford, and, in a rendition for her TV variety show, Judy Garland, who turns it into a sketch comedy number, perched at a writing desk and trying to belt it out amidst a smoke-filled house and intrusive firemen who ultimately carry her away. (Garland’s comic timing is, of course, impeccable—she’s singing while being singed.) Even in parody the song is never less than sumptuously evocative of a burning flame about to go out.

“The phrases are musically perfect, but also wonderfully ambiguous. To put it simply: is it a good thing that one should feel so much heart-scorching desire that it blinds you?”

Yet the Platters’ 1958 cover—a pop ballad with a doo-wop backup that hit number one on the Billboard charts twenty-five years after the song was written—best expresses the confused yearning at the heart of the song. As emoted by lead singer Tony Williams with his effortless modulations between silky smooth crooning and voice-cracking wallops of the high notes, the song becomes an unparalleled expression of beseeching. He’s asking us—they—for some understanding, to try a little tenderness. The most memorable part of the Platters’ rendition, in fact, is Williams’s response to the song’s first line: after being asked how he knew his true love was true, Williams sings, “Oh, I of course replied/ something here inside / cannot be denied.’” And it’s that “Oh,” attenuated to gorgeous lengths against the thrilling rise of an E-flat-augmented chord and the elegant resolution of an A-flat that really sends Kern’s music into the stratosphere. He repeats the inflection in the next verse with an “Ah!” that leads directly into the whole damn point: “When your heart’s on fire / you must realize / smoke gets in your eyes.”

With their five, repeated rhythmic notes, the phrases are musically perfect, but also wonderfully ambiguous. To put it simply: is it a good thing that one should feel so much heart-scorching desire that it blinds you? A sort-of answer comes in the swift killer of a bridge, which in the Platters’ version bursts in with a march-like tempo, growing in insistence. At first he’s defiant: “So I chaffed them and I gaily laughed/to think they could doubt my love!” But wait, this phantom they may have been right all along: “Yet today, my love has flown away / I am without my love.” When we return to the chorus, these villainous others who had doubted his love now have become “laughing friends” who “deride” our singer for “tears I cannot hide.” Yet Harbach gives Tony—or Gertrude or Irene or Nat or Dinah or Judy—the last laugh. Or at least the last wan smile: “So I smile and say / ‘When a lovely flame dies / smoke gets in your eyes.’ ” All that’s left is ash and a little blurred vision.

What does this all mean for Kate, who by 45 Years’ final scene has grown steely in her disillusionment over her marriage? In less than a week, much of what she thought she knew about her husband has been overturned. The question one has by the poignant yet queasy last shot is whether the fire is out permanently. Following an undeniably heartfelt speech in which Geoff expresses what feels like desperate gratitude and love for Kate, the two take to the dance floor. The Platters are cued up, and Geoff reminds Kate that this is “the same song playing forty-five years ago today.” They are being watched by a room full of smiling revelers, the center of attention; are these the “laughing friends”—the “they”—the song refers to? Kate and Geoff slowly sway to its rhythm, the camera gradually zooming in as they seem to enjoy one another’s company. But there’s a minor symphony of ambivalence spreading across Rampling’s face, if one chooses to notice it. By the time the song hits “tears I cannot hide,” one is tempted to project sadness onto the actress’s famously impenetrable visage. Geoff on the other hand is heedlessly singing along, smiling and completely in the moment, as though his tender speech has expunged him of guilt and grief. The camera lens keeps moving in to the couple as the song hits its final crescendo, with Tony Williams repeating the title, hitting each word in an ascent of Pyrrhic victory. Geoff takes Kate’s hand and raises it—an attempted signal of triumph—though she quickly, unmistakably pulls it away.

The gesture is sad, but worse, something about it feels irrevocable. Can love—nurtured for years, for decades, a love that has weathered sickness and overcome conflict—be so easily extinguished? Who knows for sure if the lovely flame has really died, but there may be a clue, and it can be found in Charlotte Rampling’s clouded eyes.


45 Years is now available to stream on the Criterion Channel.