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‘45 Years’ Movie Review – A masterful exercise in deconstructing intimacy

‘45 Years’ Movie Review – A masterful exercise in deconstructing intimacy


45 Years
Written by Andrew Haigh
Directed by Andrew Haigh
UK, 2015

From director Andrew Haigh (Weekend, HBO’s Looking) comes 45 Years, a film framed around the isolating nature of enduring romantic love and how closely we tie our sense of self to an idealized notion of becoming one with a partner. Kate and Geoff Mercer (Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay) are a retired couple who will soon celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary with a grand party. The upcoming public display of affection and commitment is interrupted by the arrival of a letter stating that the body of Geoff’s long-lost first love is finally being recovered. Before Geoff’s marriage to Kate, his beloved girlfriend Katya died after falling into the crevasse of a glacier abroad, and has been frozen in time ever since. Geoff immediately withdraws into his vivid remembrances of her and leaves a bewildered Kate buried under a cavalcade of wistful, possessive musings of true love. The adoration he exudes for this woman feels pure and untempered by death. Katya is present in every scene thereafter. Kate having to deal with Katya’s ghostly aura of perfection, tainting a lifetime of shared memories, is torturous. Rampling conveys measured resilience in her shattered world by trying to rationally sort it out with a thoughtful patience. Kate leans heavily on her husband to confide everything to her, but finds only a hesitance that worsens the sense of betrayal. Deepening wounds send her retreating into dark, unknown places in search of recovering a firm grasp on the world. Instead of regaining stability, the relationship cracks beneath the cavernous depth of what he has withheld from her. It’s a slow but steady crescendo of a plot that knows its characters say things within the safety of their comfort with one another. The familiarity is heartbreaking, and eases us into one woman’s horror at finding that nothing is as close or authentic in her life as she thought.

Adapted from a short story by David Constantine, Haigh’s script is dialogue-light but weighted with tremendously effective content found in long pauses, still images and a heightened sense of ingrained habits now thrown into disarray. A sense of irreparable damage hangs over their life, but only Kate seems to notice or care. In place of a score, the augmented everyday noises of a restless wind and creaking boards lead Kate to forgotten corners of their home in her husband’s mental absence. A soundtrack of sentimental classics from the early 60s provides a bridge between the shaky present and the past that consumes them. 45 Years thankfully sidesteps the obvious melodramatic screaming matches that could have enveloped this couple’s space. Instead, it’s the avoidance of confrontation and melancholic speechlessness that cements the movie’s shocking realism.

The honed visual attentiveness of Rampling to Courtenay’s every little behavioral deviation is the key to the emotional resonance of 45 Years. Rampling’s pain subtly ebbs and flows in a nearly silent performance that is expertly attuned to the most minute details. Her analytical gaze yearns to swiftly resolve the upheaval, but knows there might not be an end to it. We only have a short time with them before we see their doting familiarity stripped away by Geoff’s inability to contain his passionate grief. Although Geoff’s intense feelings are the catalyst, it’s Kate’s stake in her own life that is front and center. In cycles she tries to protect herself from the callousness at play or fiercely battle to retrieve the man who has been swept away by a romanticized past and seems to have little concern for the woman with him that is still alive. Alone, she clings to the spectre of the man she once knew and alone, as he blindly cherishes a woman he can never have again. It’s not that their marriage has meant nothing, but the once towering strength of their union feels lesser for having minimally touched on his hidden devotion. Rampling and Courtenay are impressively adept at giving the audience a sense of their broken affinity. 45 Years is reminiscent of Jame Joyce’s short story The Dead in how the demolishing of intimacy becomes as captivating as it is devastating.

On the surface, Haigh’s 45 Years is merely a quiet rumination on aging and fragility that whispers fears in our protagonist’s ear as her husband ignores her. Upon closer inspection, the mental carnage is palpable in Rampling’s every flinch and anguished gesture. She is woman undone by her connection, trying to survive a new found solitude. The consecrated length of their marriage has been desecrated by an unstoppable force that has been lurking in the shadows all along. There are sparks of hope, kindness and clarity but the sentiment in 45 Years attests to not being able to truly know those closest to us and what lies in their hearts. A genuinely upsetting film dealing in doubt and residual feelings, the last shot of Rampling is hauntingly delicate and searingly memorable.