Directed by: Andrew Haigh.
Written by: Andrew Haigh based on short story by David Constantine.
Starring: Charlotte Rampling (Kate Mercer), Tom Courtenay (Geoff Mercer), Geraldine James (Lena), Dolly Wells (Sally), David Sibley (George).
Stephen King has often said or written that every marriage has its own secret language – that only the two people involved truly understand. Outsiders can never really understand what happens between two people when they share their lives together – and every marriage is different in their own way. Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years is one of the best movies I have ever seen about a long term marriage – and it understands precisely what King is talking about.
45 Years is about a seemingly happy, long term marriage that is rocked by the arrival of a letter, that leads to cracks appearing in the marriage. Or, not appearing, really – but being exposed. Those cracks were always there – the two people in the marriage may just not have been aware of them (or, at least not equally). Kate and Geoff (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) are a retired, middle class British couple – living in the countryside, and seemingly happy. In less than a week, they will be having a large party to celebrate their 45th Wedding Anniversary – yes, it’s a weird number to celebrate, but health concerns derailed plans for their 40th 5 years ago. Everything seems perfectly fine. And then, a letter arrives from Switzerland. The body of Katya, the woman Geoff was involved with before he ever met Kate, and who died in a tragic accident, has been discovered, and the Swiss authorities wanted to let Geoff know (rest assured, this is not a movie about murder – it was an accident, and no one suspects anything else) because he was her next of kin. This causes the first ripple for Kate – who wants to know why he would be her next of kin, and why she didn’t know this before. She knew about Katya, of course, but we get the distinct impression that it’s not something they have ever discussed in great detail. During the week that the film covers, Kate will find out more than she wants to know.
Perhaps the best thing about 45 Years is how quiet and subtle it is – how it portrays how well these two people know each other, and how they can hurt each other by seemingly not doing very much. You expect that at some point there is going to be a knockdown, drag out argument between the two characters – but it never happens. In many ways, the two characters are going through their own, separate traumas – Geoff, dealing with his long buried feeling for Katya, who died more than 50 years ago, but whose discovery has drudged them back up, and Kate, who for the first time realizes just what Katya meant to Geoff, and that perhaps, he would have rather have been with her for the last few decades. Geoff tries, at least somewhat, to explain to Kate just what Katya meant to him – she drags it out of him in drips and drams, before he gives one too many honest answers, and she shuts the conversations down. But he continues to head to the attic – where everything he has about Katya is stored, and eventually Kate will go there as well. In a moment that will go down in cinema history as one of the greatest moments of wordless acting ever, Kate discovers something about Geoff and Katya that destroys her – and her face slowly shows that.
The two performances at the center of the movie are perhaps the best work that either great actor has ever given. Courtenay probably talks amore than Rampling throughout the movie – but he’s that rare actor who lets you see him thinking through those words – trying to figure out precisely the right thing to say, and perhaps more importantly, what not to say to Kate. He’s reeling, but in his way, he is trying to protect Kate. For her part, Kate is needling Geoff in a passive aggressive way in order to get more information to assure herself of the image of the marriage she thinks she has – and only really gets upset, when it becomes clear to her that she does not in fact have that marriage. The final scenes in the movie – at the party – show both actors at their best – Geoff giving a speech, while Kate listens, and highlights the brilliance of both, right up to the final shot in the film – which ranks alongside the final moments of Carol and Phoenix for best ending of 2015.
45 Years is a difficult film to write about in some ways, because it is so quiet. The film was written and directed by Andrew Haigh – I missed his 2011 breakthrough film, Weekend (and will now definitely play catchup) – and it’s remarkable the faith he puts in the actors, and the quiet he allows in the movie. This is a film heavy on symbolism, yet it never feels like overkill – like he’s beating us over the head with anything. It feels natural, and right. 45 Years is a devastating film – just like other films about older married couples, like Michael Haneke’s Amour or Sarah Polley’s Away From Her. Yet, all three films offer different portraits of marriage – different levels of love between the characters, and what it all means. What the three films share is a more complex view of old married people than we expect to see – and that we usually see in movies. In these films, life, love and marriage certainly does not get any easier with age.