The title of Andrew Haigh’s sublime if deliberately disenchanting “45 Years” refers to the impending wedding anniversary of Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) Mercer. And if even 45 years is not the more traditional round number of 50, it’s still impressive. Or at least, it sounds impressive, indicative to everyone that attends the late-film celebration of this significant milestone of Kate and Geoff’s solid foundation built on everlasting love. Time, however, is tricky, and “45 Years” proves it, cruelly, revealing how familiarity accrued over so many decades can be smoke and mirrors, and how 16,425 days can be rendered almost immaterial an instant, as if they never happened, as if one event that happened so long ago can bear just as much weight as the whole of 45 years.
As director, Haigh relays much of “45 Years” in long takes and wide frames, including the opening shot that breathes in the entirety of the marvelous open field vista on the outskirts of Norfolk, England where much of the film is set, inside the Mercers’homestead where that homey feeling gradually comes to feel not so much like a lie as a comfy veil. Those spacious angles and oft-used two shots suggest a camera that is stepping back, taking it all in, sizing up the big picture, as you might in the twilight of one’s life. Of course, that’s the grave irony, brought home not long after film’s open when Geoff, in the throes of illness, receives a letter indicating that the body of the woman he loved a lifetime ago, who perished on a hiking trip in Switzerland when she tragically fell into a crevasse, has been found. This news quietly rocks him. Her body, it turns out, is perfectly preserved in ice, a fact which illuminates the way in which her memory remains preserved inside Geoff’s mind, where she exists just the way she did so many years ago, the pull of the years having no bearing on who she was when he knew her.
Haigh is assiduous in not presenting Kate and Geoff’s marriage as a sham when suddenly shown in a different light; rather, he takes care in making sure we can see where their own happiness lies, in conversations built on an easygoing familiarity and in a moment where they dance alone in their living room. Of course, they are dancing to Lloyd Price’s murder ballad, “Stagger Lee”, and what follows, a tender sex scene that believably goes quietly awry, gives way to the film’s most indelible moment, Geoff dredging up an old photograph of his long-ago love and Kate demanding to see it. “It’s just a photograph,” Geoff says. “It doesn’t mean anything.” He and she and we know that’s a lie before he’s even finished saying it. That photo, and the other totems Kate finds laying around the attic, as if the past is always right there on top of us even if we do our best to close the door and not pay attention, is “45 Years” most crucial totem.
Courtenay gives an extraordinarily delicate performance as a personable man whose affection for his wife is very real but who is also drifting, incrementally, away from her and into the past, and is unwilling to change course even if he seems to recognize that he should. And opposite him, and also often on her own, Rampling is downright brilliant, wrestling with suddenly newfound emotions that have left her reeling. In their fairly isolated living space, she is often forced to confront these changing emotions on her own, never more so than in a sequence in which she comes face-to-face with her husband’s former lover
It’s heart-stopping, not simply for the secret unearthed, but for the way Rampling plays it, fiercely clicking through the perfunctory scenic photographs to find the ones that cut like a knife to her already wounded heart.
“We don’t realize it at the time,” says Kate, “but those memories – they’re the things, aren’t they?” Oh, aren’t they, more than we ever realize even. And if nostalgia at the movies can so often be a cozy blanket, in “45 Years” it becomes a depressant, leaving its characters disconnected from their present selves and left lurching in some sort of
The concluding sequence of the anniversary party is painful for the way in which a public façade is maintained and the way in which we know what lurks within, and how even as The Toast is employed as a Mea Culpa, Rampling’s extraordinary body language in the moment resists that apology. This is too deep and profound and goes back too far
“45 Years” resists both denial and exoneration.
The final sequences involve a post-toast shot of Rampling as she canoodles with her husband, accepts plaudits from close friends at the table of her husband's toast, but the camera keeps pushing in. And as it does, the put-upon smile fades, and her eyes dart to and fro, taking everyone around her, as if they could never hope to know the secrets this 45 year union contains, because if they did they would not be full of such reverie. And still the camera pushes, until she is alone in the frame, where perhaps we all end up, 'til death do us part or not.