The true story behind the story that inspired the film "45 Years" with Charlotte Rampling.
D. Constantine, of Oxford, author of the short story that inspired must-see movie, 45 Years, tells Joe Shute how a startling real-life event sparked his original tale
At home with David Constantine, author of In Another Country, the short story upon which 45 Years is based
The most talked about film of the week sounds an unsettling choice for Bank Holiday viewing: focusing, as 45 Years does, on the silently crumbling relationship between a supposedly happily-married couple, after the body of his first love is found, preserved in ice for half a century.
But having garnered five-star reviews from every corner of the press, including The Daily Telegraph, there's no doubt the film - already tipped for BAFTA success - is now the late summer must-see.
Acclaim has mounted not just for the powerful performances of its veteran stars - Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling in perfectly understated form - but for its bleakly truthful treatment of themes that concern us all: how to handle the past, live in the present and make love last.
Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in a scene from 45 Years Photo: Agatha A Nitecka
Now David Constantine, the poet, writer and Oxford academic who penned In Another Country, the short story upon which the film is based, has told the Sunday Telegraph of startling real-life event that sparked his original tale.
Holidaying in France some 15 years ago, Constantine heard of the discovery of a twenty-something mountaineer who had fallen down a glacial crevasse in Chamonix in the 1930s.
How can a love, weathered by day-to-day living, compete with one cut off in its prime?
Seventy years on, the retreating ice released its hold on the guide’s body, which the son he had fathered before his death was taken to identify.
The shocking sight of his father tipped the son towards insanity.
Constantine tells the Sunday Telegraph from his home in Oxford. “Everything I’ve ever written is based on a concrete image – and thatman frozen in the ice is particularly haunting.”
45 Years’ fleshed-out plot stays faithful to Constantine’s fictional interpretation of these real-life events: painting a similarly haunting portrait of the marriage of the Mercers, a comfortably-off childless couple, in the five days leading up to their 45th wedding anniversary celebrations.
Party plans are going well, until, out of the blue, a letter arrives for Geoff informing him that the body of his first love has been found frozen in the icy glaciers of the Alps, half a century after she was lost.
Courtenay and Rampling at the Norfolk house in 45 Years
For Geoff, the thawing of this passion frozen in his past taunts him with thoughts of what might have been.
For Kate, the discovery of a former lover she cannot compete with casts a sad, new light on the couple’s future - and everything she thought their marriage was.
First published in 2001 in literary magazine, The Reader, and later in a collection of short stories, In Another Country first came to the attention of cult director Andrew Haigh a few years ago, who sent word he wanted to turn it into a film.
“I said yes, of course,” Constantine says “but had heard from writer friends that the probability of it going ahead was nil, so didn’t think too much about it afterwards.”
Fittingly, for a writer so interested in the recurrence of the past, the project has now come to startling fruition, thoughtfully tackling the themes close to Constantine’s heart:
how much can you truly know of another person, however long you have been married?
On set with the film?s writer and director, Andrew Haigh
Though truth may underpin the story, Constantine says his obsession with what happens to love is no reflection on his own marriage.
Indeed next year he and his wife Helen, whom he met at Oxford where they both studied modern languages, celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. The pair until recently together edited the magazine, Modern Poetry in Translation and have two grown up children and six grandchildren.
We didn't celebrate our 45th anniversary
How did they celebrate their own 45th anniversary? “We didn’t do anything,” he says. “We acknowledged the date but that was it. I suppose we shall have to go in for the 50th because the children will want it, but otherwise we wouldn’t have organised a big do.”
The setting for his story is also deeply personal to Constantine.
Although the film moves the action to Norfolk, the house in which the Mercers live is based closely on the one his parents used to share in Deganwy, a village near Conwy, Wales, where they moved from Salford after his father secured a job as manager of a small employment exchange.
Present danger: Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in 45 Years
“It was a little house on an estate with lots of very similar houses,” he says. “The point about it was there was a loft stuffed full of things which had never been thrown away.”
Just such a loft, stuffed with things, weighs heavily on the Mercers' marriage, as do the minutiae of their daily routines.
Yet Constantine insists daily drudgery is not without its own charms:
“it’s just habitual for people who have been married for some time – and there is a great affection in that.”
History fascinates Constantine and his new novel, The Life-Writer, which is released next month, returns to similar themes, as a widow sifts through her late husband’s belongings, in order to write his biography, only to discover the life he had with a former lover seems far more passionate than the life they had shared.
Nothing is ever dead and buried
“If you survive long enough then the past is extraordinarily potent,” says Constantine. “I hate the idea of closure, I think it is a detestable idea.
Things don’t get closed when you are dead.
It’s not history that I write about, but a person’s life.
And within that life nothing is ever dead and buried.
“I think mortality is a necessary thing,” he continues. “You can only live properly if you live in the presence of death. I shall always keep writing about those same themes until I can no longer pick up my pen.”
In Another Country was, in turn, based on the real-life story of a French guide who fell to his death in the Alps, only for his frozen body to be recovered 50 years later
Of course, despite having published several volumes of poetry and short stories and one previous novel, Constantine has never experienced anything like the recognition he is receiving for inspiring 45 Years.
Although he has had no direct involvement with the film and is yet to meet the director, Constantine and his wife were invited to the press screening a few weeks ago.
“I am immensely pleased, even if I had nothing whatsoever to do with the making of the film. Helen and I were both profoundly moved by it. The gratifying thing is it is extraordinarily good.”
And as for the notion of becoming famous in his 71st year for something he wrote nearly 15 years ago, well, he accepts with a shrug, the past will always hold the capacity to surprise.
Read an extract from In Another Country
What worried Mrs Mercer suddenly took shape. Into the little room came a rush of ghosts. She sat down opposite him and both felt cold.
That Katya, she said.
Yes, he said. They’ve found her in the ice.
I see, said Mrs Mercer. After a while she said: I see you found your book.
Yes, he said. It was behind the pickles. You must have put it there.
I suppose I must, she said.
It was an old Cassell’s. There were words in the letter, in the handwriting, he could not make out and words in the dictionary he could hardly find, in the old Gothic script; still, he had understood.
Years since I read a word of German, he said. Funny how it starts coming back to you when you see it again.
I daresay, said Mrs Mercer. The folded cloth lay between them on the polished table.
It’s this global warming, he said, that we keep hearing about.
What is? she asked.
Why they’ve found her after all this time. Though he was the one with the information his face seemed to be asking her for help with it.
The snow’s gone off the ice, he said. You can see right in. And she’s still in there just the way she was.
I see, said Mrs Mercer.
She would be, wouldn’t she, he added, when you come to think about it.
Yes, said Mrs Mercer, when you come to think about it I suppose she would.
Again, with his face and with a slight lifting of his mottled hands he seemed to be asking her to help him comprehend.
Well, she said after a pause during which she drew the cloth towards her and folded it again and then again. Can’t sit here all day. I’ve got my club.
Yes, he said. It’s Tuesday. You’ve got your club.
She rose and made to leave the room but halted in the door and said: What are you going to do about it?
Do? he said. Oh nothing. What can I do?
All day in a trance. Katya in the ice, the chaste snow drawn off her.
He cut himself shaving, stared at his face, tried to fetch out the twenty-year-old from under his present skin. Trickle of blood, pink froth where it entered the soap.
He tried to see through his eyes into wherever the soul or spirit or whatever you call it lives that doesn’t age with the casing it is in.
The little house oppressed him. There were not enough rooms to go from room to room in, nowhere to pace.
He looked into the flagstone garden but the neighbours either side were out and looking over.
It drove him only in his indoor clothes out and along the road a little way to where the road went down suddenly steeply and the estate of all the same houses was redeemed by a view of the estuary, the mountains and the open sea.
He stood there thinking of Katya in the ice. Stood there so long the lady whose house he was outside standing there came out and asked: Are you all right, Mr Mercer?
Fine, he said, and saw his own face mirrored in hers, ghastly.
I’m too old, he thought. I don’t want it all coming up in me again. We’re both of us too old. We don’t want it all welling up in us again.
But it had begun.
In Another Country: Selected Stories and The Life-Writer by David Constantine are both published by Comma Press, priced £9.99.