Less is definitely more in the haunting marital drama 45 Years. Small in size, subtle in effects, and short on action, Andrew Haigh’s quietly realized tale nevertheless broadens in scope, frame by frame, as its story of a married couple on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary plays out. The film covers less than one week in its characters’ lives, yet it’s so infused with feeling that it manages to convey a lifetime of unspoken longing, mystery, compromise, and regret.
Writer-director Haigh adapted the material from a short story by David Constantine, and the film retains the sense of spareness and close observation of that fiction format. At its center are Kate and Geoff, a somewhat tweedy English couple living in quiet retirement in the Norfolk countryside. Kate (Charlotte Rampling) is a retired schoolteacher. Geoff (Tom Courtenay) was a foreman at a factory in a nearby town.
Theirs is a comfortable life, puttering around their home and grounds out in the country, walking the dog, and shopping or meeting their friends down in the village. They are tidying up the last few details for their 45th anniversary party, to be held in town on the upcoming Saturday, when Geoff receives a mysterious letter. It pertains to an accident that befell a woman Geoff was traveling with in Europe 50 years earlier, as a very young man, long before his marriage to Kate.
This is not a murder mystery, nor a hothouse melodrama in which a lifetime of deception eats away at the characters’ lives. No physical ghosts from the past pop up on their doorstep. Kate knows about the accident in a general way, and the circumstances under which it occurred, although she’s never pursued the details. But as she tunes in to subtle shifts in her husband’s demeanor over the next couple of days, it becomes clear that while Geoff has never told outright lies about this seminal relationship in his early life, he’s been guilty of a sin of emotional omission in never facing his deeper feelings, or sharing them with his wife.
Ever composed and capable, Kate does not push; she simply observes. And so do we. The couple seems in all ways compatible; Geoff has survived bypass surgery, but he’s still capable of dancing Kate around the parlor to (surprisingly) “Stagger Lee,” which is not exactly a waltz. It gradually becomes evident that they have no children—and that this is probably not by choice. Whatever adjustments they may have made over time are revealed in small, sure strokes.
As things play out, this becomes very much a story about the effects of age and time. Geoff mourns his distant youth, when he was “brave.” At a reunion with his former colleagues, he’s appalled that they, like him, have become fusty elders—even a onetime firebrand he calls “Red Lenny,” who’s now an old man “with a banker for a grandson!” The spot-on music used throughout locates their youth in the 1960s, ands it’s a shock to realize that properly middle-class Kate and Geoff are products of that radical era.
Rampling is masterful as Kate, always wry and good-humored, yet conveying moments of utter devastation with barely a flicker in her expression. A moment alone at the piano, playing Bach, that evolves over a couple of minutes into a powerful expression of her pain and anger is all the more potent when one learns that the actress improvised the moment and music on the spot. Courtenay is also excellent as Geoff, whose cantankerous persona masks the sadness inside.
It’s not fair or correct to say their marriage unravels as the anniversary day approaches, but Kate begins to view their near half-century together in a different light. The effect on Geoff is more opaque, although his anniversary speech to Kate suggests he perceives that something needs to be put right between them. The vintage music in the party scene—“Happy Together,” “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” “Go Now”—leaves it up to the viewer to decide what happens next in this engrossing, shrewdly constructed film.
*** (out of four)
With Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. Written and directed by Andrew Haigh. From a short story by David Constantine. A Sundance Selects release. Rated R. 95 minutes.