“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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles