After exploring the relationships of young, gay men in his stunning 2011 breakout Weekend and recently cancelled HBO series Looking, writer/director Andrew Haigh has turned his attention to a different kind of relationship with 45 Years, the story of a couple in the week leading up to their 45th wedding anniversary.
Haigh drops us right into the life of Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay), a retired couple living a peaceful life in rural Norfolk and planning their 45th anniversary party. Right from the off, these characters feel lived in and their marriage feels completely authentic, without any backstory or exposition. We gradually learn more about their life throughout the film but within a very small number of scenes, Haigh conveys a very strong sense of who these people are and what their relationship is like.
In the week leading up to their anniversary however, their relationship comes under incredible strain when Geoff receives a letter letting him know that the body of his first love Katja – a German girl he intended to marry had she not been killed in a sudden, horrible accident – had been found frozen in a glacier in Switzerland. It sounds like a slightly sensational set-up but Haigh and his actors play everything with absolute naturalism to the point that it never seems implausible.
Geoff speaks with great fondness of his relationship with Katja and wants to go to Switzerland to see the body. Kate knew about Katja and is supportive towards her husband but the more she finds out about the extent of Geoff’s relationship with this other woman, the more it upsets her. It was all said and done before Geoff and Kate met but that doesn’t stop Kate from feeling like a consolation prize, wondering if their 45 year marriage was something Geoff had settled on because he couldn’t have who he really wanted.
Kate’s doubts and fears about the validity of their marriage continue to grow throughout the week and Rampling wears it all on her face. It’s a stunningly subtle, natural performance that’s all about body language and what isn’t said than the kind of grand histrionics so many performances succumb to. Rampling’s superb performance makes sure we always know what Kate is thinking and feeling and that we always understand her, so her character never comes close to a nagging wife stereotype.
Courtenay is similarly fantastic, with the less articulate or outwardly emotional Geoff struggling to come to grips with the way he’s feeling or how to express it. He clearly loves Kate but the revelation about Katja has obviously shaken him and drudged up a lot of feelings and memories that couldn’t have come at a worse time. Haigh and his actors make sure that neither Kate nor Geoff seems like the ‘bad guy’ in their relationship; we understand exactly how each one is feeling and why, even when they make mistakes that hurt one another.
If there’s a drawback to 45 Years, it’s the way in which Kate or Geoff will occasionally just burst into a long story from their past in a way that doesn’t quite sit with the otherwise very natural, realistic style of the film. Although it is undoubtedly a time that both characters will be reflecting on the past, there are just a little bit too many random instances of “I remember when…” that kickstarts a meandering monologue in a way that feels too staged, though of course brilliantly delivered by Rampling and Courtenay.
Much like his earlier film Weekend, Haigh has approached this relationship with nuance, detail and great sensitivity, and as such, watching 45 Years is a quietly moving experience that’s worth seeing for its lead performances alone.