They have known and lived with each other for many years, but now they start to feel anxious and uncertain about their relationship after a sudden news comes in from the old past. As its aging couple begin to ruminate more on their long life and relationship, “45 Years” closely observes small emotional ripples around them, and its somber but intimate presentation of their personal conflict gives us searing moments of quiet but powerful emotions. The more they reflect on the past, the more they feel confused and bitter about what was lost or gone a long time ago, and they inevitably come to have questions and doubts on their seemingly stable relationship. Have they been just stuck with each other from the beginning without really knowing each other? And can they still go on together during the rest of their remaining life, in spite of this unexpected crisis to shake both of them?
In the beginning, the movie shows us how Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) begin another usual week in their provincial neighborhood, and we gradually gather some details about their life and relationship during last 45 years. While they did not have any children between them, they are happy and comfortable to be with each other in their cozy retirement life, and the upcoming Saturday is the 45th anniversary of their wedding. They are not that excited about that because they are so accustomed to each other in their life like many other old couples, but it is still an important event for them mainly because they missed the 40th anniversary due to Geoff’s health problem.
And then Geoff receives a letter from Switzerland in the morning. 50 years ago, Geoff had a close relationship with a girl he could have married if she had not fallen into a crevice during their trip in the Alps, and the letter says her frozen dead body was recently found in nearly intact shape. While the woman has been no secret at all between Geoff and Kate, this belated news of her death somehow triggers something which has been dormant in the corner of Geoff’s mind. Musing on how young his old lover still looks as he remembers, he frequently recollects his good times with her, and then he becomes more drawn to the past he supposedly left behind after he met and married Kate.
Kate naturally becomes confused and angered by the hovering presence of this dead woman she barely knew. She may be curious about how much Geoff was close to his old lover during that time, but she also cannot help but feel uncomfortable and jealous as watching her husband becoming distant from his wife, and their relationship accordingly becomes strained day by day even while they keep their appearance in front of their friends looking forward to attending their wedding anniversary party.
As Kate and Geoff respectively cope with their problem, the director Andrew Haigh, who adapted David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country” for his film, handles their story with that tactful restraint and sensitivity shown from his previous film “Weekend” (2011), a small sensitive drama about one accidental intimate relationship between two young gay men. While “45 Years” is a lot different from “Weekend” in many contrasting aspects, its drama also depends on the small but crucial interactions between its two main characters, and, thanks to Haigh’s thoughtful direction, their emotional impacts are succinctly conveyed to us while never disrupting the overall sober mood of the film.
Although we do not know everything about Kate and Geoff, they come to us as a real couple with the long history between them, and Haigh’s two lead performers seamlessly embody their respective characters with the natural sense of age and experience exuded from their unadorned but distinctive screen presence. Since “Georgy Girl” (1966) and “The Night Porter” (1974), Charlotte Rampling has always been an interesting actress to watch with her sharp, enigmatic grace during last 50 years, and she has lost none of it yet although she is going to have her 70th Birthday in next month. While most of you probably remember him for his Oscar-nominated supporting role in “Doctor Zhivago” (1965), Tom Courtenay was utterly electrifying in Tony Richardson’s great film “The Loneliness of the Long-distance Runner” (1962), and I still see the remnants of its young defiant hero from this respectable British stage/film actor’s aging face.
Rampling deservedly received an Oscar nomination for her delicately controlled performance in the film, and she has a number of fine nuanced scenes as the movie begins to put a little more emphasis on Kate’s side during its second half. In one certain scene where Kate comes to know a lot more about her husband’s past, Rampling’s rigid wordless face speaks volume through her subtle handling of thoughts and feelings churning inside Kate, and that is more than enough for conveying the bitter devastation and resignation felt by her.
Courtenay, who received the Silver Bear Award along with Rampling at the Berlin International Film Festival early in last year for their fabulous duo performance in the movie and is going to have his 79th birthday in next month, steadily holds his place besides his co-star as the other half of the movie. While his character feels increasingly distant to us as well as Kate, Courtenay lets us see and understand a man compelled to think more about how things could have been different in his life, and that is why we come to have some reservation on Geoff’s particularly amiable gestures toward his wife later in the story.
“45 Years” is a humble but sublime work about life, relationship, and love, and you will be impressed by how it elegantly balances itself between stability and fragility of human relationship to the very end without any definite answer. Whatever you think about its finale, Haigh, Rampling, and Courtenay give us an adult drama both intelligent and heartfelt, and it is surely one of the most human films from last year.
Its highly watchable, partly due to build up of suspense and its a relief nothing traumatic happens finally. As a portrayal of old age, with the Alpine disaster subtly alluding to omnipresence of death., it is drab. Retirement, with its load of a desert of time must be painful.
SC: But the movie does not give a definite answer on their future – and that’s the beauty of it.