Regarded with a cold and desaturated pensiveness, a decades-old marriage is tormented by emotions far more congruous with one in its early stages. Despite this exterior coolness, an inner exquisiteness shines clearly through. Working at their near-peak, director Andrew Haigh and his lead, Charlotte Rampling, accent each other beautifully as 45 Years deals one blow after another in this ticking time bomb of a film.
It’s Monday morning and all is well in the world. Kate Mercer (Rampling) and her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are set to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary come the weekend. A brief but lovely conversation with the mailman leaves both Kate and the audience completely off guard due the contents of a delivered letter. Far from the everyday, the news is enough to unseat the Mercer’s idyllic relationship, plunging the couple into five days of strife and unease. The steadily passing week — days clearly marked to build a sense of tension (much like in John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary) — introduces new avenues of marital turmoil while uncovering feelings from the past that neither knew they were still capable of experiencing.
45 Years may be focused on both husband and wife, but make no mistake — this is Kate’s film, as Geoff is little more than a means to inexorably prod Rampling’s character into an existential blackhole. Haigh revels in capturing the subtlety of Rampling’s performance, going so far as to frame it through and beyond objects in the extreme foreground. Like a voyeur capturing the fraying and isolated woman, Haigh knows that Kate is at the heart of 45 Years, and that her inner pandemonium is best experienced from a distance. Rampling is extraordinary in the part, and alongside an equally capable Courtenay, she is even more magnified in her portrayal. Their love is plainly evident, even through the utterly bewildering circumstances in which they find themselves. Tender moments between the two are never missed, no matter how fleeting, and each delivers a lasting, empathic sentiment.
The ups and downs of a near half-century relationship are clear in every interaction between Rampling and Courtenay; none are overstated or embellished. Sentimentality and warmth share equal time with quiet desperation and loneliness. The comfort that decades of togetherness imbue on a marriage is an honest and fresh version of love that is not often depicted in film. What age has taken away from the couple in verve and grit, it has returned twofold in terms of mutual understanding and patience. The Mercers know each other’s habits and can easily sense changes in disposition or mood. There is no “oblivious husband” or “nagging wife” to cloud the narrative. These are people acting as people.
Muted performances and a crisp icy color plate belie the boiling emotions at the core of 45 Years. In the twilight of life, plagued by arthritic bones and decaying minds, even the passionate flames of love are not immune. 45 Years is unconcerned with the “cuteness” of love — Haigh wants to know what makes it tick.
Jordan Brooks (@viewtoaqueue) is an increasingly-snobby cinefile based out of London, England. As a contributor to several online publications, including his own blog, he has succeeded in fulfilling his life long dream of imposing strong opinions on others.