45 Years accumulates its power so slowly and quietly that it reaches an emotional crescendo in its final seconds, the calm of the end credits broken by the trembling reverberations of so much left unsaid, of powerful feelings just beginning to flicker across a character’s face before the last cut to black. The film stars Charlotte Rampling as Kate, a woman busily working on the final preparations for an anniversary party. She’s been married to her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) for nearly 45 years (hence the title) and we get the impression that it’s been a largely happy life. Decades of pleasant matrimony are suddenly cast in new light, however, when Geoff receives a letter from German authorities: they’ve found his ex-girlfriend’s body, perfectly preserved in the glacier on which she perished 50 years prior. Kate plunges forward into her daily routines while keeping an eye on the approaching festivities. Geoff loses himself in the past, haunted by the idea of a young woman he loved and lost frozen forever at the point he loved her most.
In telling this story of an elderly couple in slow-motion crisis, writer-director Andrew Haigh, whose previous feature, 2011’s Weekend, was a humbly observational modern gay sort-of-Brief Encounter, and who created the short-lived HBO series Looking, a casually precise view of fumbling relationships among young city dwellers, brings his hands-off compassionate eye to a very different demographic. Adapting a short story by David Constantine (titled “In Another Country”), Haigh allows rich interiority to be provided through subtle cues and two tremendous performances of the sort older actors are rarely called upon to deliver in mainstream movies that’d rather view them as talismanic wise elders or cutesy anachronisms. Without a deluge of exposition about their long marriage, Rampling (one of our finest performers for over five decades now) and Courtenay (ditto) are able to suggest a relaxed ease and cautious sadness. They know each other so well, and yet are still capable of surprise as they learn new aspects of the other’s inner life.
What better time than an anniversary to reflect upon mortality and the passing of time, especially when given such a shocking report? The recovery of a literal long-lost love’s remains is the impetus for both Kate and Geoff to contemplate their decisions. Would he have married this other woman? Would she, then, have found a different path if she’d never had the opportunity to meet him? Does the death of this other woman, the reminder of which so vividly shakes Geoff up even now, mean she’d been haunting their marriage all this time without Kate’s awareness? When they first broach the topic, Geoff is sure he’d told his wife all this before. Kate thinks not. Haigh ratchets up some of the sound design in the house, emphasizing, together with Lol Crawley’s cinematography’s icy refinement, closed off corners and wide windows’ airless soundscapes, or the dull thudding footsteps of a husband rummaging in the attic for old photographs of the young dead woman he loved, loves, and can’t quite forget. It’s like four-plus happy decades have been greeted with the ghosts of doubt. How happy were they? Are they?
All this is treated so delicately and tenderly, with great compassion in its chilly, unshowy quiet. Haigh doesn’t ramp up the melodrama or bring on the waterworks, steering deftly away from any overt explosions of emotional conflict. Instead, 45 Years lingers evocatively in its silences, in small gestures – a hand on a chest, an impulsive viewing of old slides, a comfortable cuddle, a sudden flash of tears on an unreadable face. It’s a deliberate movie, closely observed and yet generously spacious, allowing its performers to conjure a whole relationship’s ecosystem in the unspoken closeness and spaces between them. When Kate goes to check on the hall they’re renting for the party, the proprietor tells her it’s “full of history, like a good marriage.” But what makes a marriage good? Is it merely longevity, or something else entirely?
This movie, circling big questions without finding easy answers, becomes a restrained picture about the stories couples tell themselves about their lives and the decisions that made them the people they now are, and how one new piece of information can either create or revive old confusions and doubts. Then, like a finely crafted short story, it snaps shut with ambiguous finality, moving in its resistance of conventional closure. This is a relationship movie, intelligent and reserved, painted not in optimism or pessimism, but in a sort of Rorschach test naturalism, ripe for analysis and conversation. Two fine-tuned performances – a subtle and brilliant acting duet – are enough to send one out of the theater eager to interpret the feelings within.