Movie Review: 45 Years

45years_onesheet_webIt’s challenging enough to wed a person still grieving for a prior lover who’d died without warning. It’s quite another to find out about it 45 years after the fact.

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

In the poster for 45 Years, a woman stands at a slight distance behind a man, coolly assessing him. Perhaps wondering if he’s someone worth meeting. But it’s a bit too late for that, given that the woman, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) has been married to the man, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) for nearly half a century.

Writer/director Andrew Haigh (Weekend, HBO’s Looking) opens the film with the sound of an old-time slide projector clicking repeatedly, as if it were displaying an assortment of slides. Yet the screen is dark. It’s only when Geoff’s past comes into sharp focus that protagonist Kate can glean a sense of the whole picture.

In the days leading up to Kate and Geoff Mercer’s 45th year anniversary, Kate had been busy planning a celebratory party: choosing the flowers and the music, replete with sentimental ’60s songs that they’d danced to when they first fell in love. But the upcoming party plans have been nothing more than a slight disruption to their comfortable routine: morning walks in the countryside, simple home-cooked meals, puttering around the house, occasional drives into town, and cozy evenings reading and watching television.

Six days before the party, all is well until the mailman delivers the post. Given his status as a newlywed, the fellow is fairly bursting with joy. It’s a tidy construct: As the mailman is taking his first steps on the path of wedded bliss, Kate and Geoff have journeyed 45 years on theirs. Ah, marriage … but when Geoff opens the letter, their longtime wedding knot threatens to unravel.

Tom Courtenay (Geoff) and Charlotte Rampling (Kate) in 45 YEARS. Courtesy of Agatha A. Nitecka. © 45 Years Films Ltd. A Sundance Selects Release.

Tom Courtenay (Geoff) and Charlotte Rampling (Kate) in 45 YEARS. Courtesy of Agatha A. Nitecka. © 45 Years Films Ltd. A Sundance Selects Release.

Though Geoff had briefly mentioned a prior girlfriend, he hadn’t gone into much detail. But given the shocking letter, he now has to tell Kate that, in 1962, when Geoff was on a walking holiday in the Alps with the girlfriend, she’d fallen into a glacier’s crevasse and died. The letter contains the news that due to the ice melting these five decades letter, her body has finally been discovered. Why contact Geoff? Well, it turns out that he was the girl’s next of kin.

45 Years is a drama that examines a couple’s relationship after decades of marriage. But it’s also a ghost story, in that Kate suddenly understands that she’s been haunted by a dead woman’s presence all along. A woman frozen in her beauty; frozen in perfection. Adding to the ironic timing of the upcoming anniversary party is the fact that Geoff’s mental faculties are diminishing – which, in turn, forces Kate to attempt to stifle her feelings of hurt, rage and betrayal. She may not succeed but damn it, with her head held high and rigid posture, she’s going to try.

Filmmaker Haigh takes his time developing this character study, allowing the camera to linger on the couple’s everyday activities, their slow, revelatory conversations in bed and the growing pain on Kate’s face as she realizes that she’s never been more than second choice. Even her name is an echo of the dead girl’s: Hers is “Kate,” one less syllable shy of the other woman’s more fully realized “Katya.”

Rampling delivers an exquisite performance, calling on her preternatural talent to maintain an ever-cool exterior that subtly masks the deepening pain inside. When, in a phone conversation, she has to give the party planner the list of songs she’d chosen, her contained fury is a marvel as she bites out the song titles “Happy Together,” “Your Precious Love” and their special ballad suddenly turned sour, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”

As the movie progresses, filmmaker Haigh and his D.P. Lol Crawley bathe Kate’s skin in the dull tinge of the painted walls that surround her. She can be a sallow yellow, or a sickly olive, or a ghostly blue — a canny device that allows us a greater understanding of her sense of incipient invisibility.

As for Geoff, he natters on and on about the girl, calling her “My Katya.” His obsession grows: he takes up smoking, he climbs up to the attic for secret looks at faded photos and, even in his weakening condition, he considers flying to the Alps to identify the body. When Kate reminds him that he’s to prepare a speech for the party honoring their long marriage (and without saying it, honoring her), he nods absentmindedly. That said, filmmaker Haigh is careful not to paint Geoff as a villain; rather, he’s an old man, overwhelmed by memory and unable to properly filter it all. Courtenay’s Geoff manages to walk the line between intelligence and lack thereof, often with a winning grin that he’s been relying on to disarm his wife from their earliest courtship.

Tom Courtenay, Charlotte Rampling. Courtesy of Agatha A. Nitecka. © 45 Years Films Ltd. A Sundance Selects Release.

Tom Courtenay, Charlotte Rampling. Courtesy of Agatha A. Nitecka. © 45 Years Films Ltd. A Sundance Selects Release.

Courtenay and Rampling both won the Best Actor prize of the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. (Berlin is numbered as one of the Big Three festivals, along with Cannes and Venice.) And the prizes are absolutely well deserved. 45 Years stands as a lovely coda to their 50-plus year careers: Courtenay, a dazzlingly handsome young man who starred in 1962’s The Loneliness of the Distant Runner and 1963’s Billy Liar; and Rampling, the breathtaking super-supermodel (nicknamed “The Look”) who gained accolades in 1966’s Georgy Girl.

45 Years reminds us that everyone, married or not, has secrets. Secrets may insulate; conversely, they can comfort, assuring us that spouse or no, we are separate. We are unique.

Quoting the 2007 film Married Life: “Whoever in this room who knows what goes on in the mind of the person who sleeps next to you… please, raise your hand.”

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Rating on a scale of 5 visits to the marriage counselor: 4.5

Release date: December 23, 2015 (ltd.)
Written and Directed by: Andrew Haigh
Based on the short story by David Constantine, “In Another Country”
Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, David Sibley
Running Time: 93 minutes
Rating: R

Here’s the trailer:

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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