45 Years – Reviewed by David Turpin
Directed by Andrew Haigh
Starring Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James
After a dalliance in television as showrunner for HBO soap opera Looking, Andrew Haigh follows his 2011 breakthrough film Weekend with another relationship drama – equally compressed in scale, but markedly different in tone. While Weekend was a warmly romantic “brief encounter” fairy tale – put over with enough grace to make it feel more real than it was – 45 Years is a cool, observational drama about a marriage unravelling midway through its fifth decade.
Based on David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country”, 45 Years involves a retired couple, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay), living a genteel upper-middle-class life in rural England, and planning a 45th anniversary party. Unexpected fissures emerge in their marriage when the frozen body of Geoff’s first love is found in the Swiss Alps, preserved exactly as she was a half-century previously.
The frozen body is a potent symbolic image – one that is characteristically left to the audience’s imagination. As Kate and Geoff separately ruminate on what might have been, and if and how that effects the foundations of their marriage, the unseen body becomes a metaphor for the absence – and perhaps the impossibility – of communication, even within the closest relationships. Like many studies of longstanding monogamy – Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999), for instance, or Peter Strickland’s The Duke of Burgundy (2015) – 45 Years reveals itself as a study in the impossibility of ever truly knowing another person.
Courtenay is very strong – particularly in the film’s latter stages – but 45 Years belongs to Rampling. Fans who were dismayed to see the legendary star return to England for TV’s “Broadchurch,” only to be saddled with a sketchily written supporting role, will find much to celebrate here. Playing a retired English schoolteacher, she retains her characteristic poise, but sheds a degree of the distancing exoticism that has long been a part of her appeal. Her performance is remarkably germane and unshowy – the work of a woman who has passed through icon status and emerged as one of the best actresses of her generation.
Rampling’s casting is just one indication that 45 Years is drawing from the well of European cinema, more than English prestige filmmaking. Lol Crawley’s handsomely composed cinematography and Jonathan Alberts’ patient editing bolster Haigh’s direction, and the absence of an original score permits the film’s ambiguities to resonate. Sourced music does, however, play a key role in the film, with the bravura final sequence set to The Platter’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”. The final seconds of 45 Years are genuinely wrenching – as the measured restraint of Haigh’s film builds to a single moment of operatic emotion. Patient viewers may find themselves startled by its impact.
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