Director: Andrew Haigh
Runtime: 95 minutes
An emotional highwire act from start to finish, Andrew Haigh's 45 Years instantly takes its place as one of 2015's finest dramas. More than just a showcase for two acting veterans, this adaptation of David Constantine's short story is taut, restrained, and quietly haunting. Haigh, switching gears slightly after the gay-themed Weekend (as well as HBO's Looking), has once again proven himself to be an wise-beyond-his-years observer of romantic relationships. Stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay do beautiful work throughout, but the behind-the-camera contributions are equally magnificent.
Unfolding over the course of a week, 45 Years drops us into the lives of Geoff and Kate Mercer, who are about the celebrate their 45th anniversary. Kate hates parties, but goes through the motions of setting everything up, while Geoff readies a speech for the event. Business as usual is interrupted, however, by the arrival of a letter. The body of Geoff's first love, Katya, has finally been discovered, decades after disappearing near a glacier. After so many years of sweeping the painful incident under the psychological rug, Geoff is forced to confront the finality of Katya's fate, while Kate reels from the implications of her husband's relationship with the dead woman.
The interplay between Rampling and Courtenay is so seamless that the film never has to strain to create a believable relationship between the leads. Of course they're together. Of course they love each other. But the introduction of the frozen body (preserved, more or less, as it was in 1962) brings the trauma of the past into the harsh light of the present, throwing off of the balance of Geoff and Kate's dynamic. Haigh's script wastes no time in introducing the letter, yet by then we already feel anchored in this couple's history, despite knowing almost none of it.
As Katya and Geoff's history comes out, 45 Years remains remarkably composed as it wanders into tricky emotional territory. Haigh's framing, which often captures the two leads in the same shot (as opposed to using alternating close ups) keeps us at just enough of a distance. Like Geoff and Kate, 45 Years puts up an impressive poker face, letting down its guard only in crucial moments. It's as if we're watching two people realize that years of relative happiness may have been built on false (or at least incomplete) information.
This most strongly resonates in Kate's story. Despite Katya being Geoff's former lover, the script delves more into Kate's mindset. She is, awkwardly, the third wheel whenever Katya comes up. Even when Geoff recounts Katya's disappearance (masterfully done by Courtenay), there's a sense of removal. How can Kate ever truly know she's being told the full truth about the relationship, or what happened, after so many years? This starts an emotional domino effect, as more questions flare up in Kate's mind. Her marriage was genuine...but was there something lingering in the back of her dearly beloved's mind the whole time?
To the benefit of the actors and the film as a whole, Haigh refuses to provide clear cut answers. Without ever turning Geoff into some potential villain, Haigh gently casts what he says in a shroud of mystery. While Geoff puts up defenses, Kate goes, in a roundabout way, on the offense. Her interest in Katya never devolves into paranoia. Haigh guides the emotional turmoil with a steady hand, and the actors follow suit. Rampling, always a pleasure to watch, hasn't had this good a role since Under the Sand, and she makes the most of every glance and gesture. Each new discovery prompts some new change in her relationship with her husband, and it unfolds so naturally that there's never a false beat. A critical scene set in an attic is wrenchingly good. Told entirely in a drawn out push in on Kate's face, the scene is a masterclass of restrained emotions simmering up to the surface.
Every bit as important is the finale, which gives the film a sense of closure without either spelling everything out or leaving it all too ambiguous. Every bit of 45 Years is so beautifully directed, including Haigh's decision to forgo a score. The relationship between Geoff and Kate is presented with such care and such precision, that music would have only interfered. There's enough echoing in the minds of the characters as is...