Does the longevity of a marriage indicate its quality, or is it simply a marker of time, weighed down by the same issues that plague many other marriages? This question is put to the test in writer/director Andrew Haigh’s intimate, emotionally haunting drama 45 Years, which offers a portrait of a marriage during the week of a couple’s 45th wedding anniversary. While the film is deliberately paced, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay deliver absolutely transcendent performances that pierce even the most hardened of hearts as viewers witness the potential dissolution of a decades-long union.
Rampling plays Kate Mercer, a retired schoolteacher who lives in the English countryside with her retired intellectual husband Geoff (Courtenay). As the two begin preparations for their 45th wedding anniversary, they’re forced to reexamine their entire relationship when Geoff learns that the body of an old flame who died in a tragic hiking accident—during which he was present—has been found, reopening old wounds and carving new ones.
Through his first feature Weekend and his work on the HBO series Looking, Haigh has developed a character-centric style marked by a calm, measured pace that serves to make the relationships he’s examining feel more intimate, positioning the audience as a sort of voyeur. This is the case with 45 Years, and while the slowness could be off-putting to some, the sheer power of the performances by Rampling and Courtenay are more than enough to hold the audience’s attention.
Rampling, in particular, is magnificent. From the very first scenes it’s clear that Kate is working much harder at this marriage than Geoff, whose disheveled look and disinterest in doing much of anything speaks to his level of happiness. As new information comes to light, Rampling conveys intense, complicated emotions with simple looks—it cannot be overstated how remarkable her performance is. And the film doesn’t devolve into shouting matches or scenes in which one character breaks down and “tells all”—its chronicle of this schism is much more nuanced and realistic than that, which in turn makes the film resonate that much more.
Haigh’s framing in collaboration with cinematographer Lol Crawley keeps a cold, distant focus on the two principal characters, speaking to the state of their marriage while simultaneously capturing the devastating beauty of the English countryside. And the filmmaker’s use of popular music is executed to perfection, guaranteeing you’ll never hear certain 50s songs the same way again.
What’s most striking about 45 Years, though, is just how haunting it is. The film almost sneaks up on you, delivering a gut-punch with one of the most striking final shots in recent memory. I couldn’t get the image out of my head hours after I’d seen the film, and that speaks to how effectively Haigh draws these characters, and how immersive Rampling and Courtenay’s performances are.
We all have regrets in life, things we wish we’d done, choices we wish we’d made. But it’s the burying of these regrets and refusal to move on that can have long-lasting effects that fester until they’re forced to come to the surface in an ugly explosion of pent-up emotion. 45 Years is an intensely specific and yet relatable chronicle of regret against the backdrop of a lengthy marriage, with Rampling and Courtenay so fully inhabiting these roles that your heart aches right alongside theirs.
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