By Alan Mattli
The central image of Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, if perhaps a tad hyper-literary, is a subversively potent metaphor for marriage and the ideal of eternal love it represents: it is of a dead woman, frozen solid in a glacier in the Swiss Alps since 1962, her clothes, her body, her features unscathed, unravaged by the five decades that have passed since she fell into the crevasse. The world around her has changed dramatically – she has not.
Haigh, who won international acclaim for his romantic drama Weekend in 2011, never actually shows us the corpse of the woman, nor anything remotely resembling an alpine region. Yet her presence is palpable throughout 45 Years; it quickly becomes clear just how indelible a mark her very existence – her life, her death, and the recent discovery of her body – has left on the film’s two main characters. We never see her, save for a few glimpses of old photographs, but we can feel her, as one character puts it, “just standing in the corner of the room” all the same.
Set in and around a grey, wintry Norwich, 45 Years revolves around Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay), two pensioners a few days shy of their 45th wedding anniversary, for which they have planned a big celebration. But the happy occasion is overshadowed by a letter delivered to Geoff by the Swiss authorities, telling him that the body of his first love Katya – the woman in the glacier – has been found.
With a keen eye and ear, Haigh chronicles the spiral of doubt, disappointment, and anger that follows, focusing especially on Kate, who has to continue organising the upcoming anniversary party whilst being confronted with her clearly dishevelled husband’s revelations about his time with Katya. From the very first scene, it is eerily obvious that there is something amiss in this marriage, something not quite right; many of the conversations between Kate and Geoff seem to have a skew feel to them. Whether this has always been the case or whether this is just a recent phenomenon caused by the discovery of Katia’s body is difficult to tell because the film practically opens on the fateful message being delivered. (The final chapter, in which a reinvigorated Geoff tries to woo his disillusioned wife, might suggest that the five days the audience has witnessed were indeed an anomaly.)
However, the inherent tragedy of this is heartbreaking not least because – despite the fact that the film shows the possible corrosion and disintegration of the union that is celebrated during its conflicting climax – the two protagonists, for all their apparent incongruencies, seem like a model couple. Sure, there are moments of bickering and gentle needling, but ultimately, 45 Years does a fantastic job at painting a gentle portrait of two people who have truly made a life together – and a good one at that. They are friends through and through, united in the regrets they might have – it is never explicitly mentioned but the fact that they seem to be childless must have played an at least somewhat significant part in their married life –, strengthened by their togetherness.
This discrepancy is partly what makes the film so intriguing: like Michael Haneke’s Amour, it is uplifting in a melancholy way in its depiction of love that has weathered the storms of life – while at the same time confronting that love with a new storm that might just prove fatal, even though it doesn’t affect the marriage in any direct, “physical” way, like, for instance, a case of infidelity.
Haigh deliberately holds back on imposing any authorial judgment on the film, leaving that up to the audience, who, among other things, must even decide for itself whether the relationship of Kate and Geoff is salvageable or not. Although the final frame is anything but an expressly hopeful one, it does not carry any visible finality either. If anything, it seems more like the end to a story arc – specifically Kate’s – than to the grander narrative of love and marriage, making it at least somewhat hopeful.
45 Years is an exceptional film, rich in depth thanks in no small part to Haigh’s brilliant script, whose perfectly weighted dialogue has the serious wit and the incisiveness of Ozon, Leigh, and Bergman while still being as evocatively open as a relationship-themed story from Joyce’s Dubliners. It is fitting that such a screenplay is played out by two actors of such grace and distinction as Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, who both turn in excellent late-career performances.
Courtenay, British New Wave’s everyman protagonist, shines as an essentially forward-looking man suddenly forced by circumstance and age – he is decidedly more infirm than his wife – on a life he has left behind: the message of Katia’s re-emergence coincides not only with his and Kate’s wedding anniversary but also with a factory worker reunion, which further feeds his noticeable fear of geriatric obsolescence. In a wonderfully ironic moment, the film shows him to build up an interest in climate change, whose consequences, he knows, he will never have to face – except he does, of course, because were it not for climate change, Katia’s body would never have been found.
Meanwhile, Rampling excels as the film’s major protagonist, once more favouring small gestures over the outsized emotions with which lesser actors would try to pry open the depth of Haigh’s script. The profound sadness she conveys – often silently – below Kate’s guise of stoicism contrasts beautifully with Geoff’s at times almost flustering insecurity, which further helps to delineate these two fascinating characters. Two great performances from British acting nobility cap an outstanding film by a writer-director who makes you feel that ultimately, British cinema is in very good hands.
★★★★★½ (out of six)
For more reviews (in German), visit www.facingthebittertruth.com.