45 Years is the name of a new film by British director Andrew Haigh. At the center is an old married couple in their 70s, and the title refers to the number of years they’ve been married. The husband and wife, Geoff and Kate Mercer, are played by two of the finest veteran English actors, Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling. The Mercers live in an old country house outside of a market town somewhere in England. They are retired, and live a quiet life, reading, cooking, walking the dog. Five years earlier, their plans to put on a party for their 40th anniversary had fallen through due to a health-related crisis. So now they’re planning a celebration of their 45th, a big affair to which a host of local friends and acquaintances are to be invited.
Now, before you start to fall asleep, let me assure you that this is not one of those “Aw, look at the nice old folks in their exotic marigold hotel” kind of movies. (And thank goodness for that.) In almost the very first scene, Geoff receives a letter with some startling news. “They found her,” he tells Kate. “They found Katya, or I should say they found her body. I told you about Katya.” Yes, he had told her a long time ago, but had pretty much left the subject alone after that for four decades. Katya was his girlfriend before he met Kate. They were on a hiking trip in the Swiss Alps in 1962 when she died tragically, falling into a huge crevasse in a glacier. Now, 53 years later, the glacier having melted, like so many are melting nowadays, Katya’s body has been found, preserved in the ice.
This strange, unexpected event gradually upsets the couple’s equilibrium. Geoff toys with the idea of going to Switzerland. “Whatever for?“ Kate wants to know. He tries to reassure her that this is no big deal, and the gentle routine of their relationship continues as before, but of course, long-buried feelings from the past have emerged for him, and soon she hears him rummaging through the attic, looking for photos and other keepsakes connected to this lost love.
Courtenay and Rampling are so good that they seem completely like an old married couple, with all the familiar intimacies that involves, and the rough spots as well, which are part of the deal. But here the gradual change in the emotional tone is especially acute for Kate, and Rampling, who was nominated for an Oscar in this role, is spellbinding in her quiet moments of thought and worry. Haigh lets us discover the hurt along with her, so the eventual revelation, which takes the form, not of a certainty, but of suspicion, hits us hard as it hits her. Could it be that she has always been the second choice, the consolation prize—that the entire marriage was in some deep essential inward place, not enough? Rampling’s performance lets you fully in to that difficult experience.
45 Years quietly, and I might add, ruthlessly, exposes the painful doubt and uncertainty that can arise in even our closest relationships. It’s a very sharp and brilliant piece of work.