In Brilliant “45 Years,” the Past Derails the Present

45 Years

45 Years (Andrew Haigh, 2015)

Pity the poor Tom Courtenay (Quartet). He’s a marvelous actor, yet paired opposite the grand Charlotte Rampling (Never Let Me Go) – Oscar-nominated for this film – he cannot help but pale in comparison. He’s very good; she’s brilliant. Of course, his role here is to play the more doddering member of a long-married couple, while hers is to simmer in a long burn that erupts in flame in the final moments of the movie. The cause of that upset? A long-buried memory – the ghost of a long-lost love – that surfaces just as Geoff (Courtenay) and Kate (Rampling) are about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary.

If that’s not a usually noted marker (unlike the 40th and the 50th), that’s kind of the point. It’s a symbol of how much these two have tried, without perhaps even being conscious of it, to remind themselves that their life together has meant something. There’s clearly love – or a lot of familiar comfort, anyway – but is there passion? In any case, Geoff, it turns out, was undergoing heart-bypass surgery at the time of the 40th, and so Kate has decided to make a big deal out of the 45th. From the start, it’s clear that she is the one who wants this; Geoff can take it or leave it.

I haven’t seen any of director Andrew Haigh’s other work, but in movies like Weekend and Greek Pete he explored relationships between gay men, and according to this movie’s press kit, he sees 45 Years as an extension of his interest in intimacy (or lack thereof) within couples. After seeing 45 Years, I feel the need to check out his earlier work, as I found the new film both beautiful and devastating in its portrayal of the way in which a single (perceived) betrayal can undo a lifetime of shared experience. Haigh adapted the screenplay from a short story by British writer David Constantine, entitled “In Another Country,” and while the source text is a brief gem (at just 11 pages), what he adds to it – including the setting of the anniversary – makes it truly profound.

For what we see is nothing less than the details of a life, as it is revisited, parsed and redefined. The greater the specificity of Kate and Geoff’s shared (and unshared) secrets, the more universal their distress. Rampling, especially, gives much with very little, the restrained emotions of the years finally breaking free in an almost-stifled whimper of distress. It’s an amazing performance, and it makes me wish that this year’s crop of best-actress nominees were not so strong (the smart money, apparently, is on either Brie Larson or Saoirse Ronan to win). Rampling didn’t help her chances recently by claiming that the #OscarsSoWhite controversy was “racist to whites” (uh, really?). But no matter: let’s judge the work. 45 Years is a movie that must be seen by anyone who has ever been in a relationship, which is (I hope) most, if not all, of us. Two fine actors at the top of their respective games, working off of a smart script, take us on a journey through time and memory where past sins – in this case, of careful omission – haunt present-day realities. One of the best films of 2015.

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