Despite both being small, personal, films about how relationships can affect us, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years could not be more different from his previous effort, Weekend. Whilst Weekend explored just how close people can feel to one another in a tiny space of time, 45 Years has a much grander scale (as the title implies), instead looking at how events half a century in the past and 700 miles away can continue to affect even the strongest-looking relationships. Premiering at Berlin to glowing reviews, 45 Years is a finely crafted look at marriage, memory, and old age (it’s rare to see elderly actors get such rich roles), that is sometimes let down by its lack of narrative drive.
Kate and Geoff Mercer (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) are a well-off, childless, old couple, with a wide circle of friends and the respect of the local village. They’re approaching their 45th wedding anniversary, for which they’re throwing the lavish party that they had to miss on their 40th due to Geoff being ill, when startling news from Switzerland revives long-forgotten tensions and fears. The body of Katya, the girlfriend Geoff had before Kate, has been found, perfectly preserved, in the glacier into which she had fallen some 50 years prior. What initially seems just a shock for the couple to deal with becomes a barrier between them that forces them, Kate in particular, to start re-evaluating their marriage.
The power of this part of the couple’s past is conveyed not so much through words – clearly the death of Katya and its effects have not been sufficiently discussed in this household – as it is through fantastic, evocative, sound design. In moments of high stress, the chaotic sounds of nature get ever louder, dominated by the cracking and groaning of a moving glacier, threatening to loose all the trapped water from glacial melting that Geoff’s been reading about and wash away all this couple is and ever was.
Kate and Geoff’s history and intimacy are incredibly well conveyed, Haigh’s dialogue utterly convincing and deeply human, delivered with immense skill by the lead performers. Courtenay gets the more obviously showy role – Geoff is more visibly emotional than Kate, and he even gets to, essentially, soliloquise when remembering his life with Katya – but Rampling conveys Kate’s feelings and history just as effectively. Even though we see her mostly in profile, or at least not head on, Rampling can wordlessly switch between exasperation, contentedness, and rage. A scene in which Kate watches an old picture slideshow in the dark attic is a masterclass in silent acting and storytelling.
However, despite all the obvious talent on display, you can’t help but wish that something more would actually happen. Just one more plot development would have eased this feeling, but come the last 10 minutes of the film, it’s obvious that 45 Years is coasting on the quality of its lead actors and the believability of their relationship, rather than giving one last compelling reason to not look at your watch. There are a few too many sequences of just Rampling walking or looking around a largely uninteresting background, given that there’s only a 90 minute runtime. Obviously, these scenes are far outweighed by the various compelling conversations between Kate, Geoff, and their friends, and the emotional beats are very powerful when they do come.
One of the highest compliments I can pay 45 Years is that when I left the cinema, there were groups of people discussing their marriages and some of the major events that had transpired within them. I imagine that anyone who has been in a long-term relationship will see a lot of familiar experiences in the film, but even without that connection, there’s a whole lot to appreciate here, from great performances to dialogue that is both realistic and engaging, a rare cinematic combination.