Release Date: August 28th, 2015 (UK); December 23rd, 2015 (US)
Genre: Drama; Romance
Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay
Apparent normalcy reigns supreme before being crushed in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years. It is instantly established that our central couple — Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) — live an ordinary life together, or at least that they have done up until the point we meet them. We see, for instance, Kate having an amiable chat with her postman, a former student, as she finishes up her daily walk with the dog. Life is as it would be for just about any ageing couple: very innocuous. What’s also innocuous, though, is the means by which said life is turned upside down.
Geoff receives a letter in the mail and, upon reading it at the breakfast table, finds out that the frozen body of a former lover has been found in a Swiss crevasse (this following said lover Katya’s tragic death in the early 1960s). The immediate conversation reverts, again, to normalcy. The two discuss how they feel about the news, its similarity to the Tollund Man, the science of glaciers and their preservation qualities. Even the possibility that the body mightn’t, in fact, be that of Katya. All the while, Lol Crawley’s camera remains settled on the couple, affording them as much time to breath and converse as they need.
It’s Kate and Geoff’s 45th wedding anniversary on the Saturday — the film follows a day-by-day structure, starting on Monday — for which they are having a party, though what should be a time for pleasurable anticipation turns into one of uncertainty and eventual dread. “So full of history you see, like a good marriage,” Kate hears from her Maître d’ at the very start of the film, shortly after the news but before any anxieties have truly set in. Later, Kate makes her own assertion about the undisclosed histories of she and her husband: “We were both going through something really unpleasant and yet we never talked about it in all the years that we’ve known each other.”
Rampling is the more practical of the pair as Kate, the active one (she seems to be the main force behind the upcoming party and does most of the dog-walking). The film tends to see events from her point of view: we open with her, traverse the moors with her, travel into town with her, and investigate Geoff’s past with her. Rampling obliges by assuming an authority through her presence; not the bossy kind but the controlled sort that a former teacher might bear. She probably has the tougher role of the two given Kate’s detachment is a more gradual, subtle affair (Geoff, on the other hand, has his head in the clouds as soon as he learns of Katya’s fate).
Geoff is less sound, more wavering, and Courtenay plays him with a stuttering sensibility. His memories of Katya seem clear and he often appears nervous when relaying them to his wife. Haigh’s screenplay is understated, so much so that the film can only thrive upon its own, bare-bones merits, of which there are many — the acting is restrained, as is Haigh’s direction. So when secrets inevitably spill out, they take centre stage. We are compelled to listen and listen we do: to snippets of withheld information and the considered reactions that follow said revelations.
There is an excellent scene around halfway through the film during which we see Kate and Geoff meet with their friends, the camera floating between conversations that neither of the two are actively participating in. This is the corruptive power of a seemingly banal secret. Time also hangs over the piece; its inevitability is something both Kate and Geoff find themselves weighing up during a chat where they casually lament the lack of children and grandchildren in their life. Geoff speaks of Katya being frozen in time, and how it feels odd to him that he has aged immeasurably by comparison. He worries about “losing that purposefulness” and his fear resonates because it is something that all of us will someday comprehend.
Music is utilised minimally — there’s hardly a score, if one at all, Haigh instead placing confidence in the storytelling ability of nature’s tweets and gusts. Terrifically frosty shots of the Norfolk countryside highlight both the dewy autumn setting and the impending sense of isolation our main characters feel. 45 Years is a superbly told domestic trust drama. The underlying tension isn’t edge-of-your-seat, but rather needling and discomforting. From something to look forward to, Saturday’s party becomes a lingering dark shadow. And parties are supposed to be fun.
Images copyright (©): Artificial Eye