"45 Years" is a quietly explosive film, a potent drama with a nuanced feel for subtlety and emotional complications. Starring accomplished British veterans Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, it's a master class in understated acting that explores what happens to a long-term marriage when a disturbance in the field shifts the ground under everyone's feet.
On the surface, the story of a slowly spreading crisis in the emotional life of people married longer than many moviegoers have been alive may not sound compelling, but that kind of thinking reckons without the formidable skill and insight of writer-director Andrew Haigh.
Haigh, whose breakout last film, "Weekend," explored sexual and emotional intimacy between two men in that brief time span, is attracted to stories about what falling in love does, and does not do, to people's lives, to the power of passion and jealousy to derange us and throw us off balance no matter what our ages.
In "45 Years," Haigh had the advantage of starting with "In Another Country," a masterful short story by award-winning British writer David Constantine, which the filmmaker deftly expanded on and rearranged to exceptional effect.
Of course, the filmmaker also has the advantage of actors of the formidable experience and ability of Rampling and Courtenay (winners of Silver Bears at the Berlin film festival for their performances), who bring decades of living and acting knowledge to their exploration of the ever-shifting power dynamics of a long-term relationship.
And though he started his career as an assistant editor (on films including "Gladiator" and "Black Hawk Down"), Haigh believes in letting scenes play out in two-shots, because, as he said in an interview in Sight & Sound magazine, "I like to see emotional changes happen on screen, not within the edit." That and his decision to shoot "45 Years" in sequence have enabled his actors to appear at their life-like best.
"45 Years" starts quietly, with a long shot of a house in rural Norfolk, Britain, so tranquil it's hard to believe any kind of drama can find a home here, but over the week that follows it certainly will.
The Mercers live here, Kate (Rampling in the role of her career) and Geoff (Courtenay). Childless, they're coming up on their 45th wedding anniversary, and the capable Kate is planning a large celebratory party for Saturday, postponed from their 40th because Geoff needed emergency heart surgery.
A letter has come this day, Monday, for Geoff. It's in German, and he not only needs the German/English dictionary to translate everything, he needs a bit of help even remembering where the dictionary is. But the key words are understood almost at once. "They found her body," Geoff tells his wife. "They found my Katya."
Katya was Geoff's girlfriend years before he met Kate. While they were on a hiking vacation in Switzerland, Katya fell to her death through a fissure in a glacier. Now, because of global warming, all the snow covering that glacier has melted away and Katya's body is visible for the first time. "She's like something in the freezer," Geoff says, not quite believing it. "She looks like she did in 1962, and I look like this."
Kate has known about Katya, but only in the vaguest way, not with all the previously unspoken details that gradually pour unbidden out of Geoff. And she's not prepared (and neither is Geoff for that matter) for how emotional the news makes him, for how involved he becomes in reliving the past and a relationship that has not existed for half a century.
The eventful specifics of how this dynamic plays out in the context of what has previously been a strong and stable marriage, with Geoff in the grip of buried feelings he forgot he had and Kate increasingly distressed and worried while attempting to carry on, is best left discovered in the film.
Just as, in Geoff's words, "a fissure, I suppose you'd call it, like a narrow crack in the rock" opened to swallow Katya, so a fissure in this marriage threatens to swallow both participants without a trace. This is superb yet restrained drama of the highest order, definitely not to be missed.
MPAA rating: None
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes