Film Review: 45 Years

Domestic Drama About Love And Marriage Keeps Its Tension Deep Under The Surface

Devin D. O'Leary
4 min read
45 Years
The decaf is just not cutting it.
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Charlotte Rampling is like a lot of esteemed British actors. Her work spans an amazingly diverse range of roles—from The Night Porter to Zardoz, From Farewell, My Lovely to Swimming Pool. She’s been in more than 100 films and TV shows, and—at age 70—shows no signs of slowing down. (She’s got some six films in various stages of production this year alone.)

In writer/director Andrew Haigh’s quietly crushing kitchen sink drama
45 Years she plays one half of a perfectly ordinary couple on the verge of their 45th anniversary. Kate (Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay, from Billy Liar, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and Doctor Zhivago) are happily retired and living in rural Norfolk, England. One Monday morning, less than a week away from the couple’s big anniversary party, Geoff receives a letter from Switzerland. It seems that the body of a woman has been recovered from a receding glacier where it has sat, frozen and undisturbed, for the last 50 years. Who is this woman, and what impact does her long-ago death have on this elderly British couple? Although it starts out looking like a mystery, 45 Years isn’t really. It’s just circumspect in what it reveals to its viewers. This is not an interactive film—the kind of experience where the characters know they’re being watched and the writers feel obliged to give them lots of explanatory speeches for us to overhear. Based on the short story by Lancashire poet David Constantine, 45 Years remains blissfully aloof of its cinematic audience, proceeding at a measured pace and handing out information only when it slips organically into the narrative. Our only recourse is to watch passively to see where this husband, this wife and this letter are leading us.

Eventually, we come to realize that the letter is referring to Geoff’s last girlfriend, the woman he was dating before he married Kate 45 years ago. Although he’s never spoken of her to his wife, it seems she died tragically, falling into a mountainous crevasse somewhere in the Alps. So what does this information mean to our cinematic couple? The tragedy happened nearly a half-century ago. What impact could it have on the present? … As it turns out, quite a large one.

The news awakens something in Geoff. He and his wife go from prepping for the anniversary party, reminiscing about their life together, dancing in the living room and trying to get frisky to … something else entirely. Does Geoff regret his life with Kate? Does he consider her a runner-up to the woman he might have married once upon a time? Or does the untimely arrival of this letter simply remind him of the young, virile, adventurous world traveler he was way back when? These are the questions with which Kate finds herself grappling while her husband clams up, starts smoking again and haunts the attic where he keeps his dusty old photo albums.

On the surface this restrained little drama seems to move the needle only a degree or two. It covers less than a week in the life of our protagonists and contains hardly a cross word or confrontation. But underneath all that, on a purely emotional level,
45 Years is about seismic changes. This puts an enormous burden on the actors. Rampling and Courtenay, who appear in nearly every scene, are more than up to the challenge. Consider this a high watermark for both their careers. You feel every unanswered question, see every emotional hit, slowly realize every profound truth. Like an earthquake, everything happens under the surface. And like a good earthquake, it’s the aftershocks that get you. You may not process all of what’s happening until long after you leave the theater. But you’ll be thinking about it. Like Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage crossed with Mike Leigh’s Another Year, it’s a film in which small details and tiny gestures express far more than explosive emotions and major incidents ever could.
45 Years

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