Director: Andrew Haigh
Cast: Chalotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay
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Marriage isn’t a word, it’s a sentence. So goes the old joke, which has been around even longer than Kate (Rampling) and Geoff (Courtenay) have been hitched. But 45 Years carries the weight of that time in just two words. Marriage, here, is no laughing matter. In fact, in Andrew Haigh’s hands, it’s a horror story.
All relationships are haunted by previous partners. For Geoff, that haunting takes physical form when a letter arrives out of the blue, informing him that the body has been found of a former girlfriend (Katya), who fell off a mountain in the Alps 50 years ago. As the couple prepare for a 45th wedding anniversary party, the thought of this old flame, frozen and unchanged, begins to possess Geoff. The date of their post-nuptial celebrations draws closer, but they fall further apart.
Haigh’s last film, 2011’s Weekend, captured the beauty of a fledgling romance. The warmth of that brief encounter is replaced here by a chilling sadness, but the director’s striking, intimate touch remains. This is a movie built on tiny details and unspoken gestures and it relies, like all the best ghost stories, on things not being spelled out. From the moment we first meet the Mercers, there’s a creeping sense that something’s not right. They live in the British countryside of Norfolk, where the flat land stretches outwards with a frosty remoteness – the opposite of the mountainous memories of Geoff’s similarly-named old lover. The pair are celebrating their 45th anniversary as though it’s their 40th or 50th. What has happened to make such an insignificant milestone so important?
Tom Courtenay is marvellous as the distant husband. Smoking, despite attempts to quit, and descending into rants from his political youth, he’s stuck between his past life and his current, middle-class existence. He shambles around, a picture of crumpled melancholy. When asked if he wants to go shopping, he grumbles a no. Kate asks why. “I just don’t,” comes the surly reply.
Kate is cast into a similar limbo, as each half of the relationship struggles to recall their identity outside of it – one meeting with an old pupil from her teaching days sees him unsure how to address her. Charlotte Rampling delivers a masterclass in acting, saying more with her face in these 95 minutes than some actors manage in their entire career. Shots of her on the Norfolk Broads, bathed in cold sunshine, are contrasted with the light of a slide projector, as Kate retreats to an attic to look through hoarded photos. Haigh never focuses on the pictures, instead letting his camera linger on Rampling’s expressions; as the screen clicks on and off, the portrait changes from regret to pain to questions of “What if?”.
The director’s use of shadow even makes the humble motif of a kitchen dinner powerful, as the gentle spotlight in the middle of the table means that as soon as Geoff leans back, he almost disappears into the gloom. Against that setting, conversations in which the couple declare their love – not to mention one subtly bold sex scene – carry both the conviction and uncertainty of long-term commitment. On the phone, we hear Kate telling a DJ exactly what songs they had at their wedding over four decades ago. As the list goes on, she falters. “Higher and Higher,” she says. “I don’t remember who that’s by.”
In an age of Doctor Who and other science fiction, it’s easy to think of the past as theory, a timey-wimey obstacle to be overcome. But this thoughtful study of relationships and memory is a moving reminder that the past is something more immediate – an ethereal spectre that seeps slowly into the present. After 45 Years, the fear of losing part of yourself looms quietly in the background.
Read our interview with director Andrew Haigh.