Set in the quiet, rural and idyllic countryside of Norfolk, England, 45 Years is meant to be a celebration of an enduring and loving marriage between Kate and Geoff Mercer (played by British acting stalwarts Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay). However, in the week leading up to their anniversary do, Geoff receives a letter that changes everything.
He gets news that the body of his first love Katya has been found, buried and preserved in the ice glaciers of the Swiss Alps where she had fallen and perished in her prime almost 50 years ago. It’s a gruesome reminder for Geoff that despite being happily married and settled, he never truly got over Katya and what happened to her. His wife Kate is intent on moving forward and planning their 45th, but as long days turn into even longer, quieter nights, she begins to realise that the rot is already starting to set in.
45 Years is heartbreaking because on the eve of celebrating their marriage, that might just be the very thing that falls apart. It’s meant to be a day of gathering everyone you love and reiterating your love for one another, but now, Kate and Geoff are left wondering if it was all a mistake. Scenes are still, intense or fraught, with a lot being thought but not a lot being said. Director Andrew Haig (Weekend) excels in making almost every moment unbearable – long, lingering shots on faces and static exterior scenes of Kate walking the dog in complete silence.
Rampling is exquisite as Kate. She conveys so much in her eyes and her ageing movements, that awful realisation that she may have been second best – a relationship on the rebound – in her husband’s eyes. “You really believe you haven’t been enough for me?” Geoff asks one night in bed. “No. I think I was enough for you,” Kate replies. “I’m just not sure you do.” All signs of Rampling’s prowess as a sex symbol in the 60s and 70s (think her racy role in The Night Porter) are washed away in this more mature, more intimate role, but she still commands a demanding (albeit at times fragile) presence on screen. Whether she’s merely making a cup of tea, or tinkering on the piano, you can’t take your eyes off Rampling as mixed emotions bubble away inside.
On the other hand, Courtenay is a little more simpler to define as Geoff (although there are elements of secrecy a la his breakout role in Billy Liar in 1963). He is struggling to come to terms with the news he’s been so bluntly given, and he is reassessing his life since the fact. We get glimpses of a younger Geoff – politically minded, stubborn, sarcastic, boyish and chatty – but the Geoff we are presented with is a shadow of his former self. Any signs of his character have been re-shaped by bitterness, anger, frustration and even guilt.
As a couple, they go from being content and comfortable to being complete strangers. Geoff feels decrepit knowing that the love of his life is preserved and perfect, just as she was when he knew her, and he has aged and grown weary and old without her. Kate is angered by her husband’s obsession with Katya and the romantic nostalgia he has lovingly encased her memory in. It slowly eats away at her over the course of the film. “I’d like to be able to tell you everything I’m thinking. But I can’t,” she says.
The Mercer’s still share pockets of joy and passion together. Be it a spontaneous dance around the living room, Geoff’s emotion-fuelled speech at their eventual anniversary celebration, or reminiscing over their love of music by The Platters (when they play ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ get the tissues ready) and The Turtles. Kate and Geoff have a lot in common but everything is now tainted in “what ifs” and “what nows”.
The misty hillside of the couple’s Norfolk isolated farmhouse becomes a character in itself too. It acts like a warning engulfing them each time they venture out for fresh air, that the claustrophobia of their predicament gets worse and more alienating with every passing day. The dialogue is sparse and you quickly get the sense that everyone is saying less than half of what they actually mean. It’s a slow paced movie, so don’t set yourself up for an obvious powerhouse performance, but in it’s own modest way it is an acting masterclass in subtlety. In real life, people do sit and stew on the things that are bothering them, and that is when we are at our most unpredictable and dangerous.
45 Years is hard to watch, but that doesn’t make it a bad film. The opposite in fact. Rampling and Courtenay are dynamic – career defining – as an older couple whose future is on the rocks. It is slow and at times cold; the portrait of a life gradually thrown into quiet chaos and how the things that we leave unsaid can resurface years later and in the most damaging of ways.
45 Years is out now.