45 Years – Review ****

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The retired, liberal, middle-class couple Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) are due to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary in a week (their 40th was delayed due to Geoff’s medical issues). Complications arise upon the arrival of a German letter addressed to Geoff, telling him they have found the body of his ex from 50 years prior, Katya, in a melted glacier in Switzerland. This information causes tension, and Geoff’s off-kilter behaviour exacerbates Kate’s paranoia and uncertainty.

Writer-director Andrew Haigh’s prior outings dwelt with twenty-something issues, so to capture the nuance intimacy of a marriage that’s older than him is an incredible feat. It is adapted from a short story, mind you, but Haigh nonetheless is able to retain the maturity of its source material. The naturalism is further complimented by the lack of an underscore and the deployment of ambient lighting. Further strengths reside in a naturally expository script that economises on its 90 minute runtime by omitting needless subplots. Everything turns around this married couple while Haigh succinctly captures the complexity of their plight.

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The whole story hinges on mortality, and the thawing of Katya brings this to the fore. She is perfectly preserved in her twenty-something body whereas Geoff has succumbed to the remorseless nature of time. Both Kate and Geoff undergo this retrospective journey, and begin to view their contemporary milieu with doubt. Their domestic tranquillity has been, in the words of Kate, tainted.

Further compliments go toward this film’s leads. Courtenay captures a post-middle-life crisis that grows increasingly hostile, unpredictable, and questionable. The twitching of the hands and the wide-eyed confusion conveys a man who is uncertain of his prior decisions. His gaze lacks precision that further isolates him from others, and that’s not gone unnoticed by them.

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However, Rampling’s Kate gives a drily nuance performance without missing the dramatic heft. She is always trying to match her husband’s gaze, and to understand his behaviour. As the week proceeds her impatience and despair begin to surface, but never spill over. This way  the maturity of the characters is retained, as well as appearances. There is an anniversary at the end of the week, after all. Much despair is conveyed, and this is accomplished by small gestures: keeping spoilers to a minimum, the final shot at their anniversary dance will speak volumes.

45 Years is a two-handed piece that feels wholly natural. Its sharp script and downplayed exposition gives it life beyond its screen time. Haigh’s use of this evokes an isolative state of mind in the couple as they both confront that trip in the Swiss Alps all those years ago. All of this is further accomplished by two stellar performances that bring their A-Game, and provide a nuanced yet striking mature drama for adult cinema.

UK release August 28, 2015. Now available on Blu-Ray/DVD.

Matthew Lee is an undergraduate student in the field of Film Studies at King's College London and a freelance film critic with keen interests in World Cinema, Cult Cinema and Silent Cinema.