Though the two central characters barely even raise their voices, ’45 Years’ is one of the most devastating depictions of the collapse of a relationship in recent memory. Taken from a short story with an ingenious hook, the story was then expanded with a delicate sense of human observation by writer/director Andrew Haigh (‘Weekend‘) and performed to perfection by two brilliant actors rarely given such loving screen time these days.
This beautiful and gut-wrenching movie creeps into the mind through small gestures and offhanded moments that signal so much more. It’s a wonderful piece of work hinged on one of the finest performances of Charlotte Rampling’s extraordinary career, and has deservingly earned her a variety of awards thus far.
Rampling and Tom Courtenay stars as Kate and Geoff, a couple nearing a major anniversary (see title for more). The film spends its opening moments following their comfy routine of country walks, playing with their dog, and exchanging pleasantries amongst shared memories. Then something happens that changes everything. At first it seems so small: a letter arrives for Geoff. The body of a woman he once knew has been found, frozen in the Swiss Alps. He was listed as her next of kin. Kate had never heard of the woman before, but soon learns that Geoff and she were together at the time of her death. It was an accident that scarred him deeply, even though he never acknowledged it for decades. Geoff initially makes it seem like the event doesn’t bother him, but over the following week it becomes clear that a long-dormant trauma has been awoken. Unfortunately, this also occurs on the week that Kate is organizing their 45th wedding anniversary. So, awkwaaaaarrd…
Writer/director Haigh counts down the days to the anniversary on screen, which at first seems like a cute reminder of the big day, but later turns to dread. In a strange way, he’s made a ghost story without a ghost. From the moment she’s announced, the unseen woman sits on the shoulders of both main characters and twists their actions. Slowly, Haigh teases out a complex vision of relationships, almost as a nightmare. How well does anyone really know his or her spouse? As the early domestic scenes show, over time lives can become intertwined to the point that they feel inseparable. However, ultimately everyone has an inner life that no one else ever knows. In painful, uncomfortable slow motion, Haigh follows Kate as a single piece of information unravels everything she thinks she knows about her husband. The painful revelations continue right up to the final moments of the movie, played entirely on the actress’ face almost without words. It’s devastating.
Haigh shoots the film through hazy, observational long shots. At first, the technique seems like a pleasant Hallmark card version of a long successful marriage. As time goes on, it feels like his camera is creeping where it doesn’t belong. It’s entirely the actors who communicate this tonal shift. Though the talented Haigh is in control of every frame, he’s wise enough to let his remarkable lead actors dictate the story and the complicated emotions themselves. Tom Courtenay, decades removed from his bubbly youthful work in ‘Billy Liar’, crumbles from the moment he sees the letter, not that he ever admits it. Stubborn in his dumbbell masculine refusal to acknowledge his faults or come clean about the truth, he slowly falls apart while maintaining something resembling a brave face.
It’s a heartbreaking and beautiful performance, but still not nearly as haunting as Charlotte Rampling’s astounding work. Kate knows her husband too well to fall for his façade. Slowly, she comes to realize that her entire marriage has never been what it seemed, but still she tries to march forward through the anniversary motions as if that doesn’t bother her. It doesn’t work. Watching her life fall apart while sneaking through her husband’s belongings or trudging through her daily routine is crushing. She picks key moments to express her grief, but mostly plays it through a stone-faced mask. Even so, the audience is always keenly aware of every thought on the character’s mind. It’s a beautifully understated performance by an actress who specializes in such things. It might be the best work of her long career, and that’s truly saying something.
’45 Years’ is a thoughtful, powerful and insightful movie that never once panders to achieve those goals. Haigh is too clever a filmmaker for that and his lead actors too talented to slip into melodrama. The movie devastates audiences with small gestures and words left unsaid. It requires the same careful observation from viewers as the filmmakers provide, and very much rewards that attention. The story feels so real and the pain the characters experience is so truthful that images and sequences will haunt you long after the credits roll.
’45 Years’ is a type of movie rarely made anymore. Produced with minuscule budgets for both production and distribution, the film taps into rich human experiences. Thankfully, it has reached more theaters and eyeballs than the filmmakers could have imagined. Hopefully, Rampling will be awarded for her remarkable work when the Oscars roll around. (Somehow, this is her first nomination.) Even if that doesn’t happen, do seek out ’45 Years’. It’s a depressingly human viewing experience well worth sharing.