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45 Years

D: Andrew Haigh / 95m

Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, Dolly Wells, David Sibley

Geoff and Kate Mercer (Courtenay, Rampling) are near to celebrating forty-five years of married life with a big party. As their party planner remarks, it’s an odd year to celebrate, but it’s because their fortieth had to be cancelled thanks to Geoff needing a heart bypass. They live outside a small village in Norfolk with their dog Max and appear to have a tranquil, reclusive existence.

On the Monday before the party, Geoff receives a letter from Switzerland that contains a surprise. Back in 1962, Geoff and his then girlfriend, Katya, were hiking through the Swiss Alps when she fell into a crevasse. Now, with the snowline having retreated due to global warming, Katya’s body has been found embedded in a glacier. The news startles Geoff, and unnerves Kate, especially when it occurs to her that it seems odd that Geoff would have been contacted. When he tells her that on occasion during their trip he and Katya pretended to be married to get a hotel room, and because of this he’s regarded as her next of kin, it further unnerves Kate.

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As the week progresses and Kate spends her time organising the party, she begins to realise that Geoff is spending his time reliving memories of his time with Katya. There arre questions she wants to ask him but is afraid to. When she discovers that Geoff has been going up into the loft and looking at old slides, she also discovers something that proves shocking. Kate becomes distant from Geoff, and angry with him for what she sees as a betrayal of their own relationship, that he should want to spend so much time thinking about a woman he knew before he and Kate even met.

With the party looming ever nearer, Kate confronts Geoff over his behaviour but she can’t quite bring herself to fully explain her feelings. All she wants is for Geoff to make it look like he wants to be there. But even with his assurance that he does want to be there, and he does love her, on the day, Kate is wracked with unresolved emotions as the celebration of their life together gets under way.

Adapted from the short story In Another Country by British author David Constantine, 45 Years is a subtle, intelligent movie about perceived betrayal and the jealousy resulting from it that features tremendous performances from both Rampling and Courtenay, and confident, assured direction from Andrew Haigh. It’s a movie that relies heavily on the stillness of contemplation to explore the surprisingly strong emotions felt by its central character, Kate, and it quietly and effectively makes those emotions resonate with a power that is equally unexpected for their intensity.

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Haigh, who also wrote the screenplay, postions Kate and Geoff at a point where their contentment with each other is so ingrained that it brooks no question – from us at least. But when the letter from Switzerland arrives and we see their quite different reactions to it – Geoff retreats into a world of memory and introspection, Kate sees a challenge to the comfort she’s found in their marriage – that contentment is sure to be disrupted. But where some movies might explore the ways in which both characters are affected by this kind of news, Haigh does something a little unusual: he makes Geoff a silent mourner who talks about Katya in generalities, and brings Kate’s fears and concerns to the fore.

Kate is governed by an irrational but entirely understandable need to know that Katya isn’t Geoff’s great lost love, the woman he has missed for all these years, and also that their marriage hasn’t been a case of Geoff settling for second best. She wants to know that she matters, that Geoff loves her more than he did Katya, that their marriage hasn’t been one of convenience on Geoff’s part. But she cannot find the courage to ask the question directly or with any conviction that she wants to know the answer. And by doing so she makes her situation all the worse, as her assumptions and worries about her place in Geoff’s life are amplified by her insecurities.

As Kate, Rampling is simply incredible. She gives an impressive, astonishing performance, one of contained desperation, as Kate appears to allow herself to give in to the emotions she feels in the wake of the letter’s arrival. In several scenes and shots Rampling’s features are a mask behind which you can see a swirling cauldron of emotional confusion and dismay. There’s a scene where she plays the piano, and in her playing there’s a release of emotion that is so terrible for its restrained violence; as she hits the keys each note is like a plea for exculpation of her feelings. And at the party, as Kate and Geoff dance together in what should be a joyous moment for them both – a recreation of the first dance at their wedding – Rampling’s body language tells the viewer everything they need to know about how Kate is dealing with it all.

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By contrast, Courtenay is required to remain – comparatively – in the shadows. Geoff’s behaviour at the news of Katya’s discovery is largely poignant, an inadequate response given his age and his physical infirmity. Geoff looks frail throughout, and there’s always the possibility the news will prove too much for him, but Haigh is canny enough to make Geoff stronger than he seems, at least emotionally, and there’s a handsome payoff for this at the party. Courtenay is a terrific match for Rampling, his naturally far-off gaze used to good effect as someone remembering another time in their life when they were happy. When he recounts the circumstances of Katya’s death, it’s with a heartfelt sense of acknowledgment for the happiness of that time in his life. For the viewer, it’s clear that Geoff doesn’t feel his relationship with Kate is of lesser importance. Oh that Kate could feel the same way.

45 Years excels at portraying the way in which someone can so easily and quickly feel that the relationship they’ve invested so much time in can feel so false (even if it’s probably not the case; though the movie doesn’t commit itself either way). Haigh shows complete control over the material and the narrative, even in the scenes where Kate is wandering aimlessly about a nearby town and her uncertainty is clear by the random directions she takes. The action is also beautifully framed and shot by DoP Lol Crawley, and the movie revels in its autumnal colour scheme (a perfect metaphor for the characters’ time of life and expectations). It’s a rich, sometimes lyrical movie that rewards in scene after scene, and features two actors at the top of their game. And it all ends with a final shot that is devastating for the way in which it leaves the viewer to decide how, or even if, Geoff and Kate continue their marriage.

Rating: 9/10 – a moving, emotionally astute portrait of a marriage plunged into crisis by the insecurities of one partner, 45 Years is a poignant look at how easy a long-term relationship can be undermined by simple suspicion; Rampling once again shows why she’s still one of the best actresses working today, and Haigh cements his position as one of Britain’s brightest directing talents.

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