45 Years

45 Years ★★★★½

“I can hardly be cross for something that happened before we existed, can I? Still....”

In 1962, the United States announced an embargo against Cuba following its trade pact with the Soviet Union, with tensions reaching their apex during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Jacqueline Kennedy took television audiences on a famous and unprecedented tour of the White House. Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points against the New York Knicks, the most ever by a single player in an NBA game. Long Day’s Journey into Night and A Taste of Honey swept the acting awards at the Cannes Film Festival. Marilyn Monroe’s tragic life came to a tragic end from an overdose of pills. Richard Nixon teased us with the notion that we “won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” And Katya died.

In 1970, automotive fiascos the Chevrolet Vega and the Ford Pinto were introduced. Paul McCartney announced he was leaving The Beatles a month before the release of their final album, Let It Be. Willis Reed famously (albeit briefly) returned from injury in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, inspiring the New York Knicks to their first championship. Midnight Cowboy won the Oscar for Best Picture of 1969, becoming the only X-rated film to accomplish that feat. Frances Farmer’s tragic life came to a tragic end from esophageal cancer. Richard Nixon, now President, ordered U.S forces into Cambodia, expanding the scope of the Vietnam War and indirectly inciting the Kent State shootings. And Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) were married.

The years have passed happily enough for Geoff and Kate. They live in Norfolk, she a retired schoolteacher, he a retired factory manager. They have no children, but they have their friends and their books, their long walks and their German shepherd. In a week, they will celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary with a large party, a de facto second wedding reception to replace the one they intended for their 40th anniversary, scuttled by Geoff’s bypass surgery. Theirs is an existence of comfort and routine, of long-entrenched dynamics and shared history and warm companionship. If it seems a bit dull from the outside, that is only because of the mystery inherent to any relationship, which is by its nature complex and unknowable to anyone not inside its walls.

Then again, relationships are often just as complex and unknowable to their inhabitants. A week before their pending party, Geoff receives a letter from the Swiss authorities. His long-ago girlfriend’s corpse has been discovered in the mountains, over half a century after she fell into a crevasse while they were hiking. The snow melted. The ice thawed. Katya’s body was found, preserved in all its twentysomething glory, while Geoff nears 80 and the end of his natural lifespan. Geoff had told Kate about his former flame in only the most general terms—details of past loves are not, as Geoff notes, something you comb through finely with your beautiful new paramour (even if she is another dark brunette going by a diminutive form of Katherine). Neither Geoff nor Kate was so much as a twinkle in the other’s eye when Katya passed. But the past never passes—it lingers, a perfume scenting everything that comes after.

Andrew Haigh’s masterful 45 Years takes these bones—the outline of a relationship melodrama—and creates something haunting and harrowing: An incisive exploration of how fragile even longstanding romantic ecosystems can be; of both how well and how little one can know another; of the corruptive power of secrets, even those kept sensibly; and of the long hand of the past, often described as dead but really never more than in stasis. Although Haigh’s tale focuses most squarely on Kate and her reaction to the upheaval visited upon her, 45 Years wisely has no villains. Both Geoff and Kate are good people who care for each other as best they can—their choices, even when questionable or even hurtful, hit all the harder for being eminently understandable.

Working from a short story by David Constantine (itself inspired by a man called to identify the well-preserved twentysomething corpse of his father, who had died in a mountaineering accident in France when the man was only a baby), Haigh elegantly doles out the relevant information, preferring inference and context clues to belabored exposition. We first meet Kate walking the Mercers’ dog and running into the mailman, a former student of hers who asks after her upcoming anniversary party while Kate forgets that the man’s wife recently had twins. When Kate returns home, she complains about Geoff’s sedentary existence, which he acknowledges in a manner suggesting this conversation has transpired many times. Later, Kate speaks regretfully of the lack of photographs around the house—photos they didn’t think they needed since they had no children or grandchildren to be capturing, not realizing the importance that would come to be held by the memories they failed to commemorate. The details are left vague—Did Geoff not want children? Was Kate unable to conceive?—but the important information is conveyed: The Mercers, while not exactly isolated (they have friends and family and acquaintances, enough to fill a banquet hall), are a hermetic unit, so very deeply symbiotic that they are particularly susceptible to a shock from an outside organism.

Kate is sympathetic to Geoff’s plight, at least at first. She calls from the village to check in on him. She responds with no small measure of empathy when he resumes smoking and injures his hand absentmindedly, ostensibly while trying to fix the malfunctioning toilet’s ballcock. Yet there is a motherliness (or perhaps a schoolmarmishness) to Kate’s treatment of Geoff, gently scolding him for hiding cigarettes, teasing him for trying yet again to read Kierkegaard after so many prior failed attempts, dominating the preparations for their party. On the other hand, it is a motherliness that Geoff doesn’t exactly discourage, playing up his senescence and frailty when convenient—he whines about being unable to find his old German dictionary, knowing that Kate, the organized one, will know right where it is kept—while showing surprising spryness and agency when it comes to, say, absconding to the attic in the wee hours or paying impromptu visits to their travel agent. As an onlooker, it is easy to condemn Kate as too harsh, too condescending, too controlling, and to condemn Geoff as too passive, too self-involved, too helplessly needy. But theirs is a partnership that has thrived for the better part of five decades—who is to say that what works for them is wrong, regardless of its flaws.

Courtenay and Rampling are both outstanding, creating a believable lifetime spent in each other’s company with the smallest gestures and glances—their performances blend so seamlessly into each other that it is almost unfair to speak of them separately. Yet 45 Years is plainly Kate’s story, making it is easy to give Courtenay short shrift. The nuance with which he invests Geoff is remarkable, his obvious affection for Katya and for his memories of the man he used to be existing alongside his equally obvious affection for Kate and for what they have built. As Geoff yammers on about Katya and their relationship and the accident, his disregard for Kate’s feelings is forgiven not just because Kate (at first) encourages him, but also because Courtenay makes plain that his reverie is in no way intended as cruel to or demeaning of his wife. And when Geoff is finally called upon to deliver a speech at the anniversary soiree, Courtenay does not disappoint, selling the earnestness of his words and his tears while also peppering in an odd reverie for the way old choices continue to reverberate and a series of “whatevers” that establish Geoff’s desire (and struggle) to find a balance between appearing disinterested and interested, removed and emotional. It is touching when watched from a distance—a non-public speaker forced to soliloquize, doing so awkwardly but with a genuine declaration of love—but to Kate, it is almost indecipherable, seeming to contain a regretful ode to Katya and a performative aspect that, although she requested it of him only the night before, is less than satisfying.

Yet as good as Courtenay is, Rampling is even better, delivering quite possibly the best performance of a career full of indelible ones. Few are better than Rampling at suggesting deep waters running beneath a still surface, of poise and steeliness threatened by internal turmoil. And few are better at communicating volumes with subtle changes in facial expression and body language. Kate spends much of 45 Years in silence—sometimes listening to Geoff or to her friend, Lena (Geraldine James), sometimes alone—running the risk of weighing down the film with an impassive or inscrutable (or perhaps just boring) protagonist; Rampling avoids any such obstacle effortlessly. When Geoff responds to the letter by saying he needs a smoke, her vocal attempt at kind understanding is contradicted by concern and uneasiness running across her face. When Geoff reveals that the Swiss authorities believe him to have been Katya’s next of kin—given the mores of the day, the two pretended to be married on their vacation so that they could cohabitate—she strains for a rational, unemotional reaction while also conveying the shock she feels so deeply. When she listens in bed to Geoff wax rhapsodic about his journey with Katya, she maintains a mien of sympathetic interest while also betraying a hint of her internal hesitancy and anger and confusion. When Geoff gifts her a necklace for their anniversary, she is both visibly happy and touched, but also visibly unsure of how unfettered that happiness should be—what portion of the necklace is a romantic gesture and what portion is a peace offering? It is a remarkably controlled performance, full of endless grace notes and subtleties, and deserving of every bit of praise showered upon it.

Though Haigh builds to a finale of enormous impact—with a final shot and gesture of tremendous ambiguity, full of portents both hopeful and doom-laden—his conclusion would not land as it does without the careful groundwork laid for it. Haigh makes the seemingly peculiar but very effective choice to treat the disruption entering the Mercers’ lives as something akin to a horror story—a combination home-invasion thriller and ghostly haunting where the villain is a series of secrets too long kept. Katya’s body brings with it not the news of her death—something of which Kate was long since aware—but news of her importance to Geoff, of which Kate knew little (his first reference to her, upon opening the letter, is to “my Katya”; seldom has a possessive pronoun borne such weight). Geoff’s secrets—that he was Katya’s next of kin, as well as others better left undiscussed—are perfectly understandable in the context of moving on from the past and not treating a new relationship as a replacement for an old one, yet their status as secrets weaponizes them in a way open discussion would have defused. Kate has secrets too: Her mother died the same year as Katya, her own personal tragedy of which she, like Geoff, has almost never spoken during their time together. And Kate discovers additional information in the attic that she alludes to (“I’d like to be able to tell you everything I’m thinking, and everything I know, but I can’t.”) but does not reveal, creating additional bombs for explosion at times unknown.

Haigh deploys sound design—particularly a howling wind and the sound of a slide projector over the opening credits, reminiscent of the sounds opening The Texas Chain Saw Massacre—to evoke the Mercers’ disquiet while utilizing imagery straight out of a haunted house tale. Kate lies in bed at night staring at Geoff, her eyes burning holes in the darkness. Kate views a slideshow in the attic, her increasingly horrified visage in focus frame left while the object of her attention is out of focus frame right, while the audience waits anxiously for something terrible to appear. Kate, bathed in moonlight, waves her hand gently across the attic door as though sensing a spectral presence while the door behind her slowly blows shut. It is not the horror of jump scares and knife-wielding maniacs, but of the upending of one’s reality, of a past exposed and a future that once seemed so certain now overgrown with doubt.

In 2015, Cuba and the United States reestablished full diplomatic relations. Lithuania adopted the euro as its official currency. The New York Knicks suffered their first 60-loss season, finishing with a record of 17-65. Maureen O’Hara, the Queen of Technicolor, received an honorary Academy Award; she went on to die peacefully in her sleep at age 95. Donald Trump, fulfilling Matt Groening’s prophecy, announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency. An international climate change accord was agreed to in Paris, committing the world to a reduction in carbon emissions. The snow melted. The ice thawed. Katya’s body was found. And Geoff and Kate....

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