Written and Directed by Andrew Haigh
Too often, filmmakers treat age as a character trait in and of itself. The elderly are depicted rarely in cinema, and the few times that they are shown their seniority often dominates their characterization to the point where anything else about them gets occluded. Some notable exceptions are Michael Haneke’s Amour and David Lynch’s The Straight Story, but films such as these are outnumbered by the bland Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films and their ilk. Most frequently, films mark their aged subjects as “old” and show little interest in them beyond that.
Enter Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, which explores the romantic life of a senior couple while acknowledging that there’s more to them than their age. In doing so, the film creates a moving, riveting depiction of two people struggling to negotiate their life together.
Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling) Mercer begin the film with a week to go until their 45th wedding anniversary. After they missed out on celebrating their 40th due to Geoff’s bypass surgery, the couple plans a giant bash to commemorate the lesser (but not insignificant) milestone. They will have been for married 45 years, and they want to celebrate their love with neighbours, family, and friends in their English countryside village.
The party seems to be a harmless idea, until old history threatens to get in the couple’s way. Word arrives that the body of Geoff’s first love, Katja, has been found 50 years after she fell during a vacation they took in the Swiss Alps. Geoff is understandably shaken by the news, and so is Kate, but only to the extent that it affects her relationship with him.
It soon becomes clear that the impact is quite significant. Geoff reveals that although he and Katja were never married, he was her next of kin due to their desire to make their relationship seen legitimate, a fact which fuels Kate’s jealousy. Her discovery of Geoff’s secret visits to a travel agent doesn’t help, as the thought of him flying to Switzerland to view the body mortifies her. He infuriates her by looking for pictures of Katja, leading Kate to conduct an inquiry of her own into the existing photographic evidence in order to learn whatever she can about the relationship between Geoff and his ex.
Rather than fixating on the exact nature of Geoff’s past though, Haigh wisely focuses on how it impacts the couple’s future. “I hope I remember what to do,” Geoff says at the beginning of their failed sex scene, making the lack of physicality in the relationship apparent. But the lack of intimacy between them is inverted in the stunning intimacy between the characters and the audience, thereby constituting one of the most intimate film love scenes in recent memory. Haigh captures the sequence as he does much of the film, in a series of several extended takes, emphasizing the realism of the exchange.
Scenes such as these reveal subtly, but with no lack of poignancy, the relationship between the two characters and the psychologies of each by extension. Kate copes with her lack of control over her insecurities by imposing her will on others, seeking to enforce the discipline she fails to have over her own emotions. Geoff is mostly content to be the passive recipient of this discipline, but his small acts of defiance indicate that he’s not quite as submissive as he may appear. In the clash of these two characters, Haigh creates a heartbreaking love story that’s all the more shattering for its unwillingness to take sides.
The subtlety works in part thanks to the stunning performances by Courtenay and Rampling. Rather than relying on dialogue to convey the turns in Geoff and Kate’s relationship, Haigh lets the actors’ expressions and movements do the work, and the result is a deeply naturalistic portrayal of a decaying marriage. In a stare, an exchange of looks, or a moving slow dance, the two convey all we need to know about the state of their relationship.
There’s quite a bit to know, as Haigh reveals, leading to a quiet but intense depiction of two people struggling to navigate a difficult point in their lives. There’s much more to Kate and Geoff than their age, and the probing study of both of them in 45 Years creates a gripping and emotional love story.