Reflections on a Marriage
“45 Years” opens with the recurrent click of a slide projector and we immediately realize that photographs are the main totems of the film. Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) are preparing to celebrate their 45th anniversary and on the night before, they are pulled apart. Writer-director Andrew Haigh’s beautiful film calls into question the relationship between the lives we lead and the what we accumulate. In “45 Years”, memories are substances that always threaten to turn the ache of nostalgia into the pain of regret.
The action of the film takes place over a single week yet it also manages to include a personal history of close to fifty years. When Geoff receives word that the body of his former lover, Katya, has been discovered in Switzerland, decades after she fell to her death in an Alpine crevasse, the news sends both him and Kate reeling. Kate feels that this taints everything about their relationship as if her husband had been having an affair.
Geoff’s grief hovers over the film but the stress is on Kate’s response. Her face becomes twisted and we feel her hurt. There is a deep sense of loss in the film and memories are separated from lives. Kate’s confrontation with totems from a past she can neither change nor prevent moves the film to its end. We see two lifetimes’ worth of grief and the fragility of memories and we realize that the past can never be changed. It is, quite simply, what was. Kate is stunned to learn about the former girlfriend; she had never heard a word about her before.
We meet a couple who were well set in their ways. Kate’s the earlier riser, taking their dog for a walk along country lanes, returning to join Geoff for breakfast. Kate and Geoff are clearly happy but then that letter sends Geoff into a nostalgic reverie and she shares the news with Kate and asks he permission to go to identify the body. Kate is surprised that he’d even consider this and was taken even further taken aback when he tells her he was listed as Katya’s next of kin as they’d posed as a married couple.
Over the ensuing days, we follow Kate as she discusses final preparations with her best friend Lena and she is clearly distracted, and sees the changes in Geoff’s behavior. Finding herself home alone, Kate makes a trip to the attic, ostensibly looking for photos for the upcoming party, instead indulging her fears and finding something to substantiate them. On Friday, she finds a note saying Geoff has taken the bus into town. She drives in to find him and then when they get home, surprises her again with an attempt at lovemaking that evening. Saturday morning finds him reenergized and solicitous. A fine party awaits full of friends to fete the happy couple.
This is a very quiet movie. Haigh has fashioned his film as a setting for his two stars. The story of a marriage is the foundation, but it is Courtenay’s unintentionally insensitive matter-of-factness and Rampling’s cautious yet devastated reevaluations that make this film so fascinating. Every scene is filled with humanism in way that makes us feel that we are seeing a documentary. Much of the film takes place within Kate and Geoff’s home, but Haigh avoids making the scenes feel stuffy, melodramatic, or overly theatrical. He also does not use flashbacks. He gives the audience a lot to think about.
What we do not think about are the outstanding bravura performances of Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. They both found the emotional truths of their roles and their performances are filled with nuance and charisma. They’re also capable of conveying many emotions even during the quiet moments. Essentially, for 93 minutes, you’ll forget that you’re watching Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay because they essentially become their characters.