The most perceptive films about romantic relationships are rarely the ones that stick to telling the stories of how they begin. Two people get together in quirky but comfortably familiar fashion and walk hand in hand into their future. But what happens down the road to all those dozens of rom-com love affairs? The movies that—at a gut level—feel the most honest are the ones that acknowledge the fact that even in the most long-lived relationships you never fully know the other person. It’s always a push-pull negotiation in which the participants maintain a complex and ever-changing dynamic. Andrew Haigh’s devastating 45 Years is about what happens when that dynamic is upset by a single paradigm-shifting development. You could be four months or four decades into a relationship but getting complacent is never a good idea.
Grateful complacency is probably the place from which 70-something married couple Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) begin the film. Planning a 45-year anniversary party out of their roomy and adorably lived-in house in the Norfolk countryside, they appear perfectly content with both each other and their lot in life. All this is rapidly up-ended when Geoff receives a letter informing him that the body of a former lover named Katya—lost for nigh on 50 years—has been discovered frozen into a Swiss glacier. Geoff is deeply affected by the news, retreating into an emotional fog of grief, regret and phantoms from the past. Naturally, the fugue also washes its way over Kate as she starts to wonder how she has heard so little about this woman whose death has so crushed her husband. Suddenly, their routine of trips to town, walking the dog and pottering around the house becomes charged with tension and, eventually, degenerates into outright confrontation.
Very little is explicitly revealed about the couple’s history together but from a host of little gestures, looks and behaviors, Courtenay and Rampling build what feels like the complete portrait of a decades-long marriage.
Exquisitely scripted and directed though it is, 45 Years belongs to its two leads. Very little is explicitly revealed about the couple’s history together but from a host of little gestures, looks and behaviors, Courtenay and Rampling build what feels like the complete portrait of a decades-long marriage. Then, having constructed it, these two magnificent actors tear it all down in very different ways. Courtenay seems to visibly diminish over the one-week period over which the film is set, retreating away from Kate and into an idealized past. Kate, on the other hand, externalizes her rage and hurt, transforming into an altogether more forceful presence than the collected individual we meet in the beginning. Neither performance is the least bit showy. Both build up a head of steam based on uncommonly subtle work that doesn’t betray a hint of excess or theatricality. Nothing will kill a marriage stone dead like loaded silence and, accordingly, quiet is the dominant motif here. So when the outbursts arrive, they do so with the explosive power of military-grade incendiary devices. Rampling is particularly adept at these scenes of emotional violence but it’s her portrayal of wordless suffering that really drives the point home, illustrating a punishing arc that begins with loving marriage and plummets into agonizing revelation. It gives the film its narrative backbone and a momentum that belies its domestic premise. For all its arthouse languorousness, 45 Years, based on David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country,” is utterly stripped down, a relentless mechanism in service to the cruel truths it imparts.
The most cutting lesson herein is that everyone—even those who have managed to sustain 45-year marriages—is an island unto him or herself. Some of us build better bridges to the mainland than others but these connections are always subject to erosion, whether gradual or abrupt. To see Rampling standing in the middle of her own anniversary party, surrounded by friends, awash in adulation and, yet, utterly alone, is to feel the overwhelming weight of that fact.