Background: 45 Years (Spine #861) is a British realist drama examining the self-destruction of an elderly couple’s marriage against the wintry landscape of Norfolk. This is director Andrew Haigh’s second film in the main collection, the first being Weekend (Spine #622).
Story: With just a week left before their 45th anniversary, the lives of Kate and Geoff Mercer (Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay) are rocked by the news that the body of Geoff’s ex-lover Katya has been discovered after being frozen over 50 years earlier during a mountain-climbing accident in Switzerland. As Geoff becomes more and more distant over the news, Kate makes a horrific discovery about his past that threatens their blissful marriage and quite possibly her own sanity.
The Film: Continuing in that great British tradition of emotional understatement, 45 Years hearkens back to the hey-day of late 50s and early 60s English kitchen-sink realism with a slow, deliberately measured examination of a relationship falling apart in its twilight years. There’s hardly a scene or shot that deliberately brings attention to itself, what with Haigh and his cinematographer Lol Crawley laboring to emulate the stillness and flatness of the film’s Norfolk environment. The operative word here is unhurried: even in the midst of crisis, the characters toddle about their day-to-day tasks. They walk the dog, they fix the lavatory. In the afternoon they go shopping and in the evening they read Kierkegaard and listen to Bach. Yet in the cracks between these mundanities we witness a loving relationship implode, shaken by insecurities and jealousies both partners thought they had abandoned decades before.
At first Kate is shocked but unperturbed by the news of Katya’s rediscovery—why should she lose sleep over a relationship that existed years before she met Geoff? But the news eats away at Geoff. He loses sleep and starts smoking again. Kate begins suspecting that Katya was more than just another summer fling for Geoff. One night the two try to make love for what must be the first time in ages. “Open your eyes,” she chastises Geoff. But he collapses into premature orgasm, leaving both humiliated and unsatisfied. She insists it’s alright. They both know it isn’t. That same night Kate wakes up to find Geoff gone, rummaging through his old possessions in the loft for pictures of Katya.
“I found it,” he mumbles.
“You didn’t find it. You went looking for it in the middle of the night and that’s not the same thing at all.”
The next night she works up the courage to ask the impossible question.
“If she hadn’t died…would you have married her?”
He stalls, then answers. “Yes.”
In the insert booklet for the Criterion Blu-ray release of the film, critic Ella Taylor explains that the tragedy of 45 Years comes from the fact that the two old lovebirds discover that they’ve been strangers the whole time. But this doesn’t feel right. In an interview, Haigh himself insists that the two love each other. The tragedy, therefore, comes from the fact that such a peaceable relationship could be severed by an unexpected act of fate.
The heart of the film comes from Rampling’s performance. A perennial favorite of the European art-house circuit, Rampling received her first ever Oscar nod for her role here. Much like the film itself, its strength comes in its restraint. She never rages or screams. Even in her weakest moments she rarely raises her voice. The film’s coup de grace comes in its final shot where it contents itself with simply watching Rampling’s face as a gamut of emotions races across it. The film refuses to spell everything out for its audience. It demands we pay attention and come to our own conclusions about Courtenay’s regret and Rampling’s horror. And none of those conclusions are hopeful ones.
Supplements: It’s difficult to imagine a potential plethora of special features for such a film: there are no special effects to dissect, no bombastic production design to examine, and the film is too recent for any examination of its impact upon cinematic culture. The Criterion release includes the usual array of short documentaries interviewing the filmmakers and performers, but not much more than that. There is one shocking omission—the original short story by David Constantine on which the film is based. If Criterion could include the original out-of-print Borden Chase novel in their dual-format release of Howard Hawks’ Red River, there seems no decent reason why they couldn’t include Constantine’s 10-12 page short story in either their Blu-ray menus or their insert booklet.
Overall: Visually stunning and exquisitely acted, 45 Years transcends its own occasional sleepiness to become one of the more poignant British dramas in some years. Though not extraordinary, the Criterion release may stand as the definitive home release version of Haigh’s powerful film.
Film Grade: B+
Criterion Grade: B
Featured Image: The Criterion Collection