In the early scenes of 45 Years, Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling, Farewell, My Lovely) and her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay, The Dresser) share the kind of relaxed mutual affection that suggests their marriage has been a long and happy one. Indeed, they are preparing for a big party to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary, which is just a few days away. The party has been long-delayed: they were planning to celebrate their 40th anniversary in similarly grand fashion, but Geoff's emergency bypass surgery threw a wrench into those plans. Thankfully, they're both still here, and they both still love each other.
Then, a piece of shocking news arrives: the Swiss authorities inform Geoff that they have found the perfectly-preserved body of his ex-girlfriend Katya in the mountains (where she died in an accident while vacationing with Geoff fifty years earlier). Kate is particularly shocked by the news: she wasn't aware that Geoff was in a serious relationship before he met her, and she certainly wasn't aware that his girlfriend had died. Her initial reaction is a combination of sympathy and jealousy, though as the days pass, the latter begins to dominate her thoughts. She tells herself that her hurt feelings are irrational, but Geoff (who has begun to demonstrate occasional signs of dementia) unintentionally makes the situation worse by offering thoughtful, clear memories of his relationship with Katya while struggling to remember simple things about his present-day relationship with Kate.
A variation on this tale was offered earlier this year in The Age of Adaline, in which another long, happy marriage was suddenly haunted by the face of a young woman from the past. However, that film was a full-blooded mainstream melodrama, full of naked emotion and deep sentiment. 45 Years is the elegant arthouse take on similar themes, relying on painfully familiar realism and delicate subtlety to detail this alternately affecting and heartbreaking tale of a marriage on the brink of collapse. This is a tender film, but there's a trace of Haneke-esque chilliness here – a recognition that the laws of the universe don't make exceptions out of pity.
In one sense, what's happened is far milder than, say, the revelation of an extramarital affair. After all, Geoff didn't actually cheat on Kate; he simply didn't tell her a sad story from his past. That can be forgiven, right? But in another sense, this revelation is worse than plain old adultery, because it taints every single part of what these two people have shared together. Did Geoff marry Kate because her name reminded him of Katya's? Was their decision not to have children impacted by the fact that Geoff might have wanted to have children with someone else? The film doesn't offer answers to these questions, but it certainly offers a vivid portrait of the impact the questions have on Kate.
Rampling and Courtenay are old pros who are too often ignored these days, and 45 Years gives both of them the opportunity to do some of the richest work of their careers. Rampling's performance is easily one of the year's best, an indelible portrait of heartbreak that never once tips into theatricality. She's trying to maintain her composure as the big anniversary date approaches, but her sad, confused eyes betray her: she's unraveling, and quickly. Courtenay's performance is another impressive achievement; a fine-tuned essay of an intelligent, good-hearted man who isn't nearly as lucid as he used to be. The image of Katya's frozen corpse nudges him into a fog of memory, allowing long-dormant feelings from the past to rise to the surface while the present becomes a strange blur.
The film was directed by Andrew Haigh, whose previous film was the similarly understated Weekend. Both this film and that one have roots in David Lean's masterful Brief Encounter, detailing rich, complex chapters in tender relationships that may or may not be coming to an end. While there are intense close-ups of Rampling and Courtenay's expressive, weathered faces, the film relies heavily on medium-to-long shots which emphasize the growing emotional distance between these two people. The film generally prefers to let viewers discover the emotional subtext of the tale for themselves, with the exception of soundtrack selections that speak very directly. The film's most resonant line comes not from Kate or Geoff (though both have many resonant lines), but from The Platters: “When a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes.”
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 95 minutes
Release Year: 2015