Film review: 45 Years

24 August 2015

Saga film critic David Gritten recommends 45 Years, a fascinating analysis of an enduring marriage.

The title of the film 45 Years refers to the length of time its leading characters, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom  Courtenay) have been married. They live a calm, peaceful life in rural Norfolk -- a retired couple seemingly defined by mutual  fondness and amiability rather than any grand passion. 

The action begins a week before their 45th anniversary party, and it feels as if more happens in the next seven days than in the  previous four and a half decades. Geoff receives a letter from Switzerland, stating that his ex-lover Katya, who fell to her death in  a crevasse while they were on a walking holiday in their 60s, has been found, her corpse virtually intact, trapped in a slowly  melting glacier. He is requested to identify her body.

While Kate knew about Katya, it raised no issues between her and her husband: it was, as she says, “before our time.” Yet this  jolting news affects Geoff greatly, who seems to start doubting the very foundations of his marriage. His distrust is infectious, and  Kate gradually comes to wonder if their union has been a sham.

It’s a somber story, then. 45 Years is clearly aimed in part at an older age group that it depicts, but it has none of the cheerful  senior merriment of, say, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Its story is hugely absorbing, but its tone is chilly. This is partly due to the forbidding presence of Charlotte Rampling as Kate. Hers is unquestionably the lead role – the story  essentially unfolds through her eyes – and Kate is a tough character, especially as her sense of a happy marriage unravels. Rampling  is more than capable of pulling off such a feat, and she’s outstanding.

Yet for me even she is eclipsed by Courtenay. His Geoff is a former trade union official who rose to managerial status. He has traces  of barely concealed anger – yet the bypass surgery that caused the cancellation of their 40th anniversary party has left him  diminished: he’s forgetful and fretful, almost childlike, yet still able to guard his true feelings about his past and his marriage.  This is a complex portrayal from a superb actor.

British director Andrew Haigh, who based his script on the short story Another Country by David Constantine, is fully in command of  this subtle, intriguing material. The theme of time passing – a major underlying factor in this story – is emphasised by snippets of  dialogue, and a recurring motif of clocks and watches chiming or ticking.   Haigh also uses music deftly: Kate is asked to choose the music for the party, and insists the opening dance should be to The  Platters’ Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, which was also played at their wedding. (The song, of course, is actually a hymn to lost love.)  And the film’s sudden ending is given clear meaning when the screen goes black and we hear another of her musical choices. 

This is impressive, thoughtful work, almost defiantly grown-up and psychologically adept. It refuses to offer instant, upbeat  solutions – but it’s a rich, finely worked piece of first rate drama, with two towering performances at its centre.

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