by Ken Bakely
When Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years comes to an end, it leaves behind a shattering trail of emotions, built up over the preceding 96 minutes via indirect input, leaving a surfeit of tension boiling just below the surface, with a final scene which is masterfully directed and impeccably acted, despite coming without a single word of spoken dialogue. This film, based off the David Constantine short story “In Another Country”, concerns the story of Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoffrey (Tom Courtenay), an English couple living in rural Norfolk who are planning a massive celebration in one week’s time to celebrate their forty-fifth wedding anniversary. The party will be attended by scores of family and friends, and from the outside, is meant to be a flawless celebration of a rock-strong relationship.
However, a long-hidden secret rises to the forefront, and causes long-suppressed feelings to re-emerge, as well as new ones to form. Geoff receives a letter from the Swiss authorities, telling him that the body of Katya, his long-lost first love, has been discovered in a mountain glacier, after she disappeared during a hiking trip in 1962. Offered the opportunity to fly to Switzerland and formally identify Katya’s remains, he weighs the pros and cons with his wife, and initially decides he is not interested. The problem is that Kate is learning of Katya for the very first time, and she realizes that her husband’s apprehension to discuss the relationship hides some big secrets about the two, which leave Kate wondering whether or not Geoff is capable of remaining honest, and what other details he may have been concealing for all of these forty-five years.
45 Years is a rich, engaging, and mature drama of complexities. Haigh made a name for himself a few years ago with Weekend, a very good film detailing the early stages of a relationship between two twentysomething gay men. Here, he focuses on the dynamics between a heterosexual couple who have been together for nearly a half-century. What’s striking is that how, even within the fray of high-strung feelings, Haigh depicts Kate and Geoff’s life with warmly instilled direction, showing a marriage lived-in, and adapted to throughout the passage of time and the aging of its participants. Lol Crawley’s cinematography is impressive, and makes sure to never call attention to itself, with carefully chosen shots and framing that exude a robust nature which suits the setting perfectly.
But the real reason to watch 45 Years is to have privilege of watching Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, two excellent, storied performers who are working at the top of their respective games here. The standout is Rampling, as Haigh follows her attempting to reconcile what she has learned and what she knew before, realizing that the two may no longer be exclusively compatible. That final scene I mentioned before, which makes gut-wrenching usage of The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, provides more than enough justification of Rampling’s Oscar nomination, as her body language is at once painstakingly restrained and torn open, baring her character’s stomped-upon, utterly conflicted soul.
And Courtenay is also worthy of credit. His performance is even more cut down, based on the decisions Geoff makes to hide what is already hidden, knowing that this is not a wise choice, but simultaneously remaining unwilling to let everything out at once. He is reluctant to speak to his wife about Katya directly – tellingly, many of his early references to the situation are framed around comments regarding global warming, and wondering out loud if the increased temperatures are how the glacier melted enough to reveal his deceased partner’s corpse. Courtenay and Rampling’s expertise in a refined, honed approach, carries the film above cheapness.
Haigh can stumble from a writing perspective, sometimes jamming scenes full of obvious symbolism, as if he was worried that the proceedings were too subtle. A song on the radio with telling lyrics is quickly turned off in a scene which feels a bit too clangy, an example of the occasional event which disrupts the otherwise smooth, naturalistic mood. Otherwise, this is a film which mostly stays away from unrefined melodrama, despite having a very potentially melodramatic storyline. Instead, it provides a masterclass in dramatic acting, especially in the form of extended two-handers, and leaves the viewer’s mind abuzz after the closing credits roll.