Andrew Haigh's 45 Years surveys a marriage long enshrouded in a cocoon of normalcy. Fissures begin to show almost immediately, though, and a relationship that initially seems strong is quickly revealed to be fragile and bent. The transition does not occur because of some grand infidelity or moral compromise. Instead, small deceptions of communication and expectation add up quickly, creating the kind of separation between spouses that feels unbridgeable.
Set in the lush English countryside, Haigh's affecting two-hander juxtaposes a sense of external peace with internal duress. Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) go about their daily routines happily enough—she walks the dog near The Broads while he sleeps in and reads the paper. They have no children. Their 45th wedding anniversary celebration looms on the horizon. One day a letter arrives in the mail and everything changes. Geoff's deceased ex-girlfriend's body has finally been found 50 years after she fell to her death in the Swiss Alps.
What follows can be described as a slow-motion psychological horror film that doesn't shed a drop of blood. From Kate's perspective we see Geoff grow increasingly aloof, retreating into the attic to look at old pictures of a woman whose presence remains strong. "I feel like she's in the room standing behind me," Kate confesses as Geoff's obsession with the dead woman reaches uncomfortable levels. No longer the only woman in his world, Kate begins to question their entire marriage.
The key to 45 Years is distance, both emotionally and physically. As Kate feels the weight of the past closing in, the inverse occurs with her marriage. Almost every shot is static but conveys the lengthening space between the couple. Sometimes Geoff isn't even visible in the frame as Kate tries to balance a mix of emotions and reactions to his change in behavior.
Haigh firmly places the audience in Kate's shoes. We feel her helplessness standing on the outside of crisis, but also understand the selfish desire she feels to sweep the past under the rug. Rampling's Academy Award-nominated performance goes to great lengths conveying the struggle Kate experiences through shifts in her vocal tone and facial expressions, and quiet moments of panic that take on an otherworldly sense of dread.
Small details of language are also essential. When Geoff first mentions the deceased he calls her, "My Katia." Kate's stunned reaction speaks volumes. How quickly we can betray the ones we have loved for so long. Similarly small daggers reappear later in the film, but Haigh does not call overt attention to them. It's up to us, like Kate, to try and piece together what can be done after the fact, if anything at all.
The film's potency stems from its layered performances. Courtenay is every bit Rampling's equal, instilling Geoff with palpable frustration, insecurity and doubt. Yet the film stands out for other reasons too, most notably its use of silence to convey the crippling feeling of doubt. Watching one's sense of control and trust slip away is exactly what Kate experiences, especially when words are left unspoken.
45 Years, which is currently playing at the Landmark Hillcrest Cinemas and Angelika Film Center, culminates with the aforementioned anniversary party. Friends and family surround Kate and Geoff, speeches are given, intimacy is feigned. The Platters' "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" plays over the speakers as Kate and Geoff share a last "first" dance. What should be a drawn out joyous affair ends abruptly, but not before Kate's façade finally breaks, unleashing a tide of crushing anxiety.
Hypotheticals play an important role in 45 Years, so it's fitting that the viewer is left with their own to consider after this great last shot. But clearly the gut punch of its finality can't be denied. There may have been good times and bad times, as Geoff honestly notes in his endearing party speech, but from here on out something will never be the same.