Dir: Andrew Haigh
Kate and Geoff are the archetypal stable couple: middle-aged, long married, steadfastly loyal. On the verge of celebrating their forty-fifth wedding anniversary (the fortieth being postponed due to ill-health), they are the picture-perfect vision of young love blossoming into a mutually caring partnership in the autumn of life. Are they? The solidity of their union is threatened when a harrowing event from Geoff’s ancient past unexpectedly pierces the calm of the present.
After the briefest of set ups to establish the couple’s comfortable retreat somewhere in rural England, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) reveals he has received some post. “They’ve found her”, he confesses to Kate, the definitively elegant Charlotte Rampling. ‘Her’ is Katya, girlfriend from a former life, tragic victim of a fatal mountain fall when the young couple were holidaying in the Alps. Fifty years hence they have found her corpse, preserved in the ice, revealed by melted glacier. For the intervening half-century, Geoff’s feelings have lain buried alongside the body. The raising of the dead excavates his dormant emotions too.
While Kate is already aware of the awful tragedy that coloured her husband’s early adult life, she is less prepared for the revelation that Geoff still counts as Katya’s next of kin, the authorities deceived into believing they were married at the time so they could share a hotel room. It is the first dent in the integrity of their relationship that leads to a steadily escalating corrosion of trust over the next captivating hour and a half.
Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are both magnificent. Their joint performance is a masterclass in domestic subtlety. In the expert care of two stage veterans, we are eavesdropping on intimate, intense exchanges of the type we would never normally be party to. While sideline support comes from Geraldine James and David Sibley as friends helping to arrange the upcoming celebration, the focus is always on the scintillating interaction between the two leads. Their dialogue is so engaging, the film is as gripping as any thriller. Fine details are skilfully deployed, deftly planted, left to be unearthed, decoded after the fact. The extraordinary is achieved by such realistic depiction of the ordinary.
The result is a quite outstanding creeping tension as we draw ever nearer to the pressurised climax of the public celebration of their relationship’s longevity. It has the air of the closest an authentic portrayal of a normal, ‘real world’ situation can get to a ghost story. Katya’s presence haunts Kate as much as any ‘fictional’ supernatural spirit, and by virtue of being ‘real’ it is all the more disturbing. Despite being dead half a century her truly felt re-emergence eats away at Kate’s confidence, planting a seed of destructive distrust. ‘Katya’ is even a more exotic variant of her own name, a neat touch that reflects Kate’s building suspicion that Geoff settled for second best when he married her.
The disquieting, affecting message of Andrew Haigh’s highly intelligent study of long-borne familiarity and intimacy is that it can only ever be the present moment that matters. Love and trust must be cared for, actively nurtured, never taken for granted. 45 Years is an exploration of the private space between devoted companions navigating painful emotional obstacles. An exceptionally realised and intricate illustration of everyday interpersonal discord. The unavoidable negotiation of deeply rooted passions will inevitably confront frailty, insecurity, jealousy, and hurt. And when dealing with such fundamentals of feeling, time simply doesn’t exist.
★ ★ ★ ★ ½