Written and directed by Andrew Haigh, 45 Years explores the consequences of the choices we make in our youth—and the choices we didn’t make. With a stunning performance from Charlotte Rampling that manages to haunt you while you watch the film, 45 Years stands as one of the very best films of 2015.1
It also manages to tell a complete story in the process.
Every Main Character comes loaded with a Problem-Solving Style. Every story maintains a Story Limit. Problem-Solving Styles comes in two flavors:
Holistic. The Story Limit is either an
Optionlock or a
Timelock. By comparing those two story points together, an Author can predict the kind of Audience that will empathize with the plight of the Main Character.
Optionlock: All Audiences
Timelock: Predominantly Male Audiences
Optionlock: Predominantly Female Audiences
This last one is particularly interesting as it represents the dynamics of narrative at work in 45 Years. Kate is a married woman who continues to maintain the balance in her marriage even as she becomes more and more aware of her husband’s hidden past. In addition, she faces the deadline of their 45th wedding anniversary set to take place at the end of the week.
Typically we refer to this kind of narrative as something that no one wants to see. Audience empathy correlates with interest and can be used to determine who will show up at the box office. Linear/Timelock stories bring in the Male Audience members (Armageddon, 48 Hours, 3:10 to Yuma) and Holistic/Optionlock stories are often referred to as “chick flicks” (Moulin Rouge!, Splendor in the Grass and Pride and Prejudice). Out of the 360+ films with complete storyforms, only four feature a Holistic Main Character trapped in a Timelock.
Time to add a new one.
It is hard to empathize with someone faced with a problem they don’t see. Holistic thinkers don’t see time the same way Linear thinkers do. Time is fluid to them; seven days came seem like seven seconds, or seven years. So how then can one justify the overwhelmingly positive critical response to the film and a 97% rating on Rotten Tomatoes?
Kate’s inability to see the deadline of her own life ties into her most personal of issues. She was so busy balancing out the most important relationship in her life throughout all these years that she failed to take time to do those things that truly make her happy. Like playing the piano.
In a way, the filmmakers of 45 Years used this dynamic of the Holistic thinker in a Timelock to act as a sort of meta-analysis of her life. So unprepared for this moment was she, that Kate had no other alternative than to play into her own Personal Tragedy.
As someone who prefers to adapt herself to the problems around her rather than solve them externally, Kate finds conflict in her husband’s obsession with his past love (Main Character Approach:
Be-er, Main Character Domain:
Mind, Influence Character Concern:
Past). Faced with a house devoid of photographs and a life without children, she becomes increasingly aware that what she thought she had she never did (Main Character Issue:
Evidence, Main Character Symptom:
Self-Aware, Main Character Response:
Aware) . The longing to be loved and for the life that was lost to her drives her to sit at her piano and play (Main Character Problem:
Desire). Kate’s inability to go back in time and relive her life forces her to be stuck with thoughts of Katya and the notion that perhaps her husband simply settled for her (Main Character Solution:
Ability, Main Character Resolve:
Steadfast, Story Judgment:
For his part, Geoff wallows in what once was before Katya fell in that hole so many years ago (Influence Character Concern:
Past). When asked by Kate whether or not Geoff and Katya would have married had she not died he says yes without hesitation (Influence Character Issue:
Prediction). Unsettled and restless, Geoff lingers on what was lost and the “decrepit” body that keeps him from visiting Katya (Influence Character Problem:
Inequity, Influence Character Symptom:
Desire, Influence Character Response:
Ability. Having worked through his emotions and seeing its effect on his wife, Geoff somehow finds peace and believes the two of them can start their marriage over fresh (Influence Character Resolve:
Changed, Influence Character Solution:
By setting the story points of the Main Character Throughline and Influence Character Throughline to correspond with the above analysis, Dramatica predicts that the Problem in the Relationship between Kate and Geoff should be
And that is precisely what is wrong between the two of them.
The perception that they had a happy marriage. A loving marriage based on mutual love and understanding (Relationship Story Concern:
Understanding). They didn’t have that. They may have projected a certain image of who they were to their friends and family, but it was all in eyes of the beholders—in this case, Kate and Geoff Mercer.
Kate’s discovery of Geoff’s hidden slide collection and the truth it held eases their relationship to a close—a resolution that could forever change what they mean to each other (Relationship Story Solution:
Actuality). But Kate refuses to reveal what she has learned. She holds it in. Balances it out so as to maintain peace for the eventual anniversary celebration (Overall Story Solution:
Instead of resolving their differences, Kate keeps up the perception that all is fine between them (Relationship Story Problem:
Perception). Their relationship grows into this resolve in much the same way a Steadfast Main Character would. Instead of facing the dilemma and working through the solution, their relationship focuses on the work that can’t be undone.
At one point Geoff asks Kate, You really believe you haven’t been enough for me? To which Kate pointedly responds, “No. I think I was enough for you, I’m not just not sure you do.” (Relationship Story Symptom:
Self-Aware, Relationship Story Response:
Keeping up appearances worked for them in the past. Tragically it seems as if it will continue to do so.
It can be difficult at times to determine the Overall Story Throughline of a story that is about a relationship. After all, where do you draw the line? But if you separate the logistical concerns of a relationship from the heart of one, you can begin to see where the two Throughlines diverge.
In 45 Years it is the letter received from Switzerland and the conflict involved in figuring out what to do about Katya (Story Driver:
Action, Story Goal:
Conceptualizing, Overall Story Problem:
Inequity). Subtle manipulations, dysfunctional interactions with friends and co-workers, and the tender balance employed as Kate plans out their 45th wedding anniversary with event planners assume the brunt of conflict within this Throughline (Overall Story Throughline:
Psychology, Overall Story Concern:
Kate averts the crisis by keeping a happy face throughout Geoff’s confused and somewhat forced speech (Story Outcome:
Success). But it is the first dance between them that tells all we need to know about Kate’s emotional state. The song that plays—“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”—reinforces the Problem of Perception between them and makes it even harder for her to keep the peace. It is clear Geoff has found peace, but for Kate the emotional pain and heartache has only just begun.
And time has already run out.