Director: Andrew Haigh
Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, Dolly Wells, David Sibley
MPAA Rating: (for language and brief sexuality)
Running Time: 1:35
Release Date: 12/23/15 (limited); 1/22/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | January 21, 2016
She was not even 20 years old when they first met. They don't have grandchildren or children over whom to dote. On the walls of their quaint home, there aren't pictures of them together or separately (or even ones of the dogs they've had through the decades). Five years ago, when the couple should have been celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary, she was likely caring for him on account of an unspecified illness.
These are the pieces spread throughout 45 Years that give us a broad picture of what the marriage between Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) is and has been like. There are two other pictures that form, too. They are the individual, idealized pictures that each character has in mind of what could have been and maybe even what should have been. They're assembled from the gaps—the missing pieces—in the characters' individual lives and the life they share as husband and wife. The tragedy of this relationship is that the other person is only in one of those idealized portraits.
The story of the film is founded upon the notion that there are certain topics in any given romantic relationship that become taboo. At some point, two people realize that some things are best left unspoken. They come to an agreement—either plainly stated or implicitly shared—that any conversation about those subjects will lead to no good. It might be a former lover, a profession that was left behind when a child arrived, a goal to travel to this place or that, or some other dream that time and/or circumstances have rendered impossible.
It happens. It's neither inherently good nor bad, but, as the Bard wrote, "thinking makes it so."
Some things are easier to drop than others. Some don't stick around in the mind for as long or with such feeling as others. The longer the thought persists and the stronger the emotion behind it remains, though, the more likely that the regret will lead to destruction.
Kate and Geoff both have regrets, although it's his biggest one that brings out a string of the ones she has. In the days leading up to the party to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary, the couple is sitting at the kitchen table like any other day. It's the first and last time we see them in a start of normalcy—him sitting at the table, reading a newspaper, and her preparing tea for them both.
Geoff receives a letter. "They found her body," he announces.
The body in question is that of Katya, the woman whom Geoff was dating before he met Kate. The explanation is enough to take Kate aback. It's his description of the woman as "my Katya" that stings.
The screenplay by director Andrew Haigh (adapted from David Constantine's short story) is filled with moments like that one: the way her husband repeatedly breaks his promise not to take up smoking again, the way he plays music from the time when he knew Katya, the way he suddenly takes an interest in walking to village on his own after she has asked him to walk with her, and the way he keeps his eyes closed when they make love for the first time in what is probably a long time. They're emotional daggers for Kate, who doesn't quite realize that her name is eerily similar to that of her husband's former lover. She does realize that her hair used to be dark, just as Katya's was.
Geoff doesn't seem too attached to memories of his life with Kate, hence the lack of photographs on the wall, but when he tells the story of how Katya was killed, the details of their final day together, hiking up a mountain in Switzerland, are too specific to be suddenly remembered. His account is one of a man who has thought on this event with regularity. The look on Kate's face as he tells the story is of a woman who realizes this and cannot handle it.
Rampling's performance, which is quietly and gradually devastating, is almost entirely reactive, and that relatively passive characteristic also says a lot about the character. By the end, we get a sense of Kate as a woman who has and has had no control over the destiny of her own life and of her marriage.
The lack of children—and she speaks of that directly while suggesting that, maybe, she might have wanted kids—is likely a decision she and Geoff came to together, but was it really? There's a revelation here, when Kate decides to see for herself what Geoff has been looking at in the attic, that might explain the decision on one side of the relationship. It doesn't matter if the images of Katya she finds in a slide projector do point directly to Geoff's reasoning for not wanting children with Kate, though. The point is that it's a possibility from her perspective. That is enough.
For his part, Courtenay plays Geoff with a degree of aloofness. The important thing is that he never comes across as uncaring. It's quite the contrary: He cares deeply. The problem is that he cares deeply about a different person than the one to whom he's married. Geoff, as stubborn and ill-equipped to be a good husband to Kate as he may be, is never seen as a bad man.
We would be hard-pressed, then, to assign blame for what has happened, is happening, and what will happen to this couple, and even though he forms the film around Kate's perspective, that is not Haigh's goal with 45 Years. That there really is no blame here is what makes it tragic.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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