An exquisite pain permeates 45 Years, in which a seemingly solid, decades-long marriage slowly begins to crack until you wonder at the end if it can even be preserved. Discreetly directed by Andrew Haigh, featuring nearly invisible performances from Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, it’s a quiet punch to the gut, a reminder that tranquil domesticity should never be taken for granted.
Rampling and Courtenay play Kate and Geoff Mercer, a British couple who are preparing to celebrate their 45th anniversary with a wedding reception-style party. Then Geoff receives a letter related to his youth. Although it reveals nothing immediately jarring, this window to the past suddenly can’t be shut. As the movie proceeds and the implications fester, both he and Kate become so obsessed with the past that they begin to lose sight of what they have in the present (and could have in the future).
As director, Haigh keeps a respectful distance, opening the film with long shots of Kate as she walks a country road with her dog. In their home, the camera is careful not to intrude as she and Geoff warmly go through their retired routines. There is real affection here and certainly love, which we often witness from the next room, the camera only catching part of their interaction past the doorframe.
Rampling and Courtenay essentially give a single, symbiotic performance. Like Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in Carol, it’s hard to imagine one character without the other. Haigh also emphasizes their interconnectedness by filming conversation scenes in which the camera focuses not on the speaker, but the listener. In essence, 45 Years has three main characters: Kate, Geoff and their marriage.
45 Years has three main characters: Kate, Geoff and their marriage.
Still, this is ultimately Kate’s story, and Rampling is remarkable in the amount of meaning she can communicate by slightly altering her level of attention in Kate’s thoughtful, middle-distance gaze. With the furrow of an eyebrow, a blink of an eye or a sudden refocusing on an object before her, we understand that Kate, in a single moment, has experienced the emotional equivalent of time travel. She’s returned to the troubled present, having just visited the newly revealed past.
There are other metaphysical touches, including the way the songs that Kate and Geoff plan to use for their party — including “Happy Together” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” — all recall a time gone by. Sound is also key to a midnight scene in which Kate hears the wind in the attic, calling her like a ghost. She knows that artifacts from Geoff’s past are up there, and one day she unearths a series of photo slides from before they were married. She sets up a projector, and as each slide clicks into place the noise it makes recalls the cocking of a gun.
45 Years concludes, as you might expect, with that anniversary party, where Geoff gives a speech that is heartbreaking, but not for the usual reasons. The couple then shares a restaged “first dance,” during which Rampling’s performance hits its zenith. I can’t explain why without giving things away; suffice it to say it’s a moment that left me simultaneously awestruck and crushed.