REVIEW: 45 Years [2015]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: R | Runtime: 95 minutes | Release Date: August 28th, 2015 (UK)
Studio: Sundance Selects / IFC Films
Director(s): Andrew Haigh
Writer(s): Andrew Haigh / David Constantine (short story “In Another Country”)

“She’d look like she was from 1962 and I look like this”

Half a century is a long time—enough to believe you know everything about the person you’ve spent it with lovingly and happily. But what do we really know? What was he/she like before you met and what shaped them into the person you fell in love with long ago? Does it matter? One could argue everything before your union is meaningless because you didn’t meet that version of them. All our choices are wrapped in actions and events of our pasts and sometimes we shove them so far into the background that we forget they exist. The why of what’s happened gradually fades beneath who we’ve become as a result, especially after a prolonged time period. Just because it’s been forgotten, however, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

It doesn’t mean your never speaking about certain details is a lie either, though. We constantly block tragic events from memory and tell ourselves they don’t matter moving forward. In fact, we sometimes cannot move forward without eradicating them from our history. Unfortunately the truth often hurts more than deceit and in special circumstances can look just like it when a sense of betrayal is added to the equation. This is what Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) experience on the cusp of a grand anniversary party set to celebrate their titular 45 Years together. The comfort and ease they’ve taken for granted for so long gets turned upside down with a letter from the past and things might never be the same.

Writer/director Andrew Haigh proves with this adaptation of David Constantine‘s short story “In Another Country” that his sophomore effort Weekend was no fluke. Similar in scope with its dedication to a deeply felt romance during a specific period of time, 45 Years portrays the potential death of a union where its predecessor showed the complications of a beginning. The Mercers reminisce throughout the piece about how attractive and cool they were and how that excitement led them to a life of happiness in which they grew old without losing their spark. It can look desperately normal at times too with conversations stemming from how things have changed where Geoff used to work or Kate chastising him for never finishing a book he’s started three times, but that’s marriage.

So when a letter arrives from Germany telling Geoff the body of his first love was found frozen in a Swiss glacier so many decades after his adventure with Katya ended in her tragic fall, an invisible crack forms. It’s as though Kate and Geoff always had this dormant fault line buried beneath years of comfort waiting to catalyze an avalanche of uncertainty on what’s to come and what’s already occurred. Kate remembers the tale of Katya, but Geoff left out many details without ever seeing the reason to rectify his oversight. Because how could it ever prove relevant to their life together? The answer: this beautiful, young woman preserved as a perfect memory of youth and past love puts a face to their mortality, regret, and existence.

Told from Kate’s perspective to the point of Geoff being blurred in the background or cropped half off-screen to focus on her emotional spectrum, we watch as she questions whether or not she was her husband’s soul mate or a consolation prize. For forty-five years Katya was an afterthought—a former girlfriend left to the annals of ancient history—and now she’s all he can think about. We understand this grief on Monday and newfound tenacity on Tuesday in the aftermath propelled from the doldrums of a comfortable existence, but by Wednesday things get worrisome. Saturday is bringing friends and family together for a celebration of their love and he’s leaving their bed each night to quietly gaze in reverence at photos of Katya in the attic.

Talk of going to Switzerland to claim the body crop up despite Geoff barely enjoying walking around the block at home. Revelations of his relationship with Katya and all he truly lost are revealed as well—bombshells that taint decisions he and Kate made in the interim for her and the audience to consume without him knowing exactly what we’ve learned. It’s a delicate subject that Haigh traverses carefully alongside his actors to project forty-plus years of feelings overlapping and warring with each other over the five-day lead-up to the culmination of a love starting to look as though it was built on a lie. Here’s another woman in Katya who has been dead for half a century and yet she is giving Geoff reason to drift away.

It feels like an affair—a secret romantic tryst with a memory no longer repressed. Each time Geoff escapes by himself we see Kate’s pain, betrayed and made of secondary importance. Is there a modicum of selfishness at play? Sure. But would there be if he’d come clean years earlier? Jealousy can’t help but rise to the surface as she discovers Katya’s similar appearance to her own. It was young love and she the replacement at a distant second. Objectivity says to let it go and yet Kate cannot; not when he’s so consumed by a time before they met. Even though their marriage seems so strong, this level of pain cannot be dismissed. Whether newlyweds or sexagenarians: the struggle to remain together is a constant battle.

Will they get beyond this psychological rift before the party? Will joy return to their union or will bitter resentment pull the curtain on an infected foundation? The decision lies with them both because one cannot do it alone. The cat is out of the bag and Geoff is going to have to earn Kate’s love again—he can’t simply put Katya back in a box and pretend it never happened. And Kate cannot just forgive him blindly either. It becomes a master class of acting as Rampling and Courtenay float in limbo, lost in a headspace doing their love no favors. He overcame this tragedy once before by himself, and now it must be endured together with the woman he obviously loves more than anything else.

We have no idea what might happen in the end and the trepidation upon approaching Saturday’s party reaches a fever pitch at bedtime Friday night. Tensions are so high that it feels like everything is over, but love isn’t so simple. Even they are unaware of what the morning might bring. The result is a flood of tears and emotion of so much time and so many events altering personalities and desires. There’s always more to remember and cherish if only we’re cajoled into remembering. Nothing that happens is ever insignificant, the smallest things form the largest ripples whether we’re positioned to see the ramifications or not. Sometimes we need a reminder of our, “Whys?” Fate often intervenes, but our choices are still our own.

[1] Tom Courtenay (Geoff) and Charlotte Rampling (Kate) in Andrew Haigh’s 45 YEARS. Courtesy of Agatha A. Nitecka. © 45 Years Films Ltd. A Sundance Selects Release.
[2] Charlotte Rampling (Kate) in Andrew Haigh’s 45 YEARS. Courtesy of Agatha A. Nitecka. © 45 Years Films Ltd. A Sundance Selects Release.
[3] Tom Courtenay (Geoff) and Charlotte Rampling (Kate) in Andrew Haigh’s 45 YEARS. Courtesy of Agatha A. Nitecka. © 45 Years Films Ltd. A Sundance Selects Release.

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