Economical, understated, and flawlessly calibrated, 45 Years is a mature, potent drama of great nuance and even greater emotion; a searching, inescapably authentic portrait of a marriage on the brink of disaster; and a confirmation of a new cinematic voice and the glorious results that artistic experience can facilitate. Refined, believable, and ultimately devastating, it is a romance to treasure for years to come.
Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling, Under the Sand, Melancholia, The Forbidden Room) and her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay, Doctor Zhivago, The Dresser) are in the process of planning a party in celebration of their 45th wedding anniversary when shattering news arrives for Geoff in the form of a letter from the Swiss authorities. The letter explains that the body of his ex-girlfriend, Katya, has been found perfectly preserved after she fell into an alpine crevasse while hiking with Geoff fifty years ago. The impact of the discovery on Kate send the couple reeling in an attempt to maintain a relationship four and a half decades in the making.
There are some performances that upon first viewing, you know you will never forget (and you will wish to revisit). In 2012, it was Emmanuelle Riva as Anne Laurent in Michael Haneke’s heartbreaking, Oscar-winning Amour. In 2013, it was Adèle Exarchopoulos as Adèle in Abdellatif Kechiche’s overwhelming, Palme d’Or-winning Blue Is the Warmest Color. (Their forerunner would be Maria Falconetti in The Passion of Joan of Arc.) These performances were larger than life; the characters haunted, comforted, and inspired you after the countenances were no longer on screen.
Rampling’s performance as Kate can be added to the list. It’s closer in timbre to Riva’s, but just as explosive as Exarchopoulos’, albeit more quietly so. Rampling plays Kate as subdued, calm, fragile, yet filled with steely resolve to explore exactly how Katya changed her husband half a century earlier, and the implications of that experience on the present day. Rampling’s expressions are subtle, yet they exude profound meaning; her body language barely changes, yet it communicates in spades. A whispered voice, a shift in the eyes, a look of betrayal partially masked all hit harder than the loudest expletive or insult.
Courtenay almost gets the short end of the stick: like Paul Dano in There Will Be Blood, a stellar performance in the shadow of one for the ages is destined to be overlooked. Restrained and tactful, he reveals a critical weakness – a lack of self-awareness – in his desperate attempts to alleviate Kate’s uncertainty. “You really believe you haven’t been enough for me?” “No, I think I was enough for you. I’m just not sure you do.” Geoff is one of those well-intentioned people who rationalize dishonest because of good intentions.
45 Years is not the first time in this sandbox for British writer-director Andrew Haigh: his Weekend was one of the most praised debuts of 2011, and a solid effort at presenting the joys and difficulties of loving another person. Still, it only hinted at what was to come: 45 Years is a landmark achievement, a masterpiece from a filmmaker who has a significant future in navigating this knotty terrain with such dexterity and mining it for feeling and insight. While the tranquil shots and muted conversations leave much interpretation to the audience, there is remarkable intelligence in every decision made.
Indeed, the questions that 45 Years poses are timeless. Can secrets be survived? Are lies told to one’s trust partner anything but a symptom of distrust? Must myths form the bedrock of the most mysterious of cultural institutions? 45 Years has no answers, but it probes, gently and firmly, beneath the façade that accumulates when two people spend a lifetime together. Its inquisition is wrapped in the cotton of delicacy and sorrow, but its scalpel still cuts to the bone.
And like the greatest films about marriage – like the gut-wrenching sidewalk parting in Blue Valentine, like the inevitable demise in Amour, like the brutal shouting match in Before Midnight – 45 Years ends with the crushing recognition of resilience crumbling away, leaving nothing but the shambles of a relationship slowly taken apart by that most effective of life’s weapons: time.