Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years is a film I’m glad I watched a second time. My original response to it was that it was a little too “kitchen sink” for me — that it’s very realistic approach was a bit of a slog. A second viewing didn’t entirely change that, but it made it clear to me that it was the only approach to this material that would work. A look into the life of a married couple at the 45-year mark that intends to do what this film does (and it does it well) needs the somber, measured, carefully detailed approach that Haigh takes. (It is worth noting, however, that it’s also very much the same approach as Haigh’s 2011 film, Weekend, suggesting that it’s also just the way he looks at the world.)
The story of 45 Years concerns Kate (Oscar-nominated Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) as they prepare to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. The film goes out of its way to point out that a 45th anniversary is not a traditional “event,” but that Geoff’s illness prevented them celebrating their 40th. (It remains an unspoken possibility that waiting for the 50th anniversary might be unwise.) Their existence seems tranquil, established and solid, but that may not be quite the case, something that comes to the surface with the news that the body of Geoff’s pre-Kate girlfriend, Katya — who died in a mountain climbing accident in Switzerland nearly 50 years prior — has been found in a glacier.
In itself, this intrusion from the past seems unthreatening. But the more Kate hears, the more curious she becomes about her predecessor — and the more she starts to think of herself as a second choice who only exists in Geoff’s life because of Katya’s death. Unable to resist picking at it (and equally unable to resist some rummaging into Geoff’s old mementos), she learns more than she wants to. Yet the question remains as to how accurately she’s reading what she learns. This is the crux of the film. How much do we ever really know about another person? Even after years and years together, do we completely know someone? Or are there dark, unexplored corners that are perhaps better left unexplored? Is the baggage we carry so much a part of us that it will eventually come to the surface regardless? These are the questions that 45 Years poses — and they are question that the film is not so foolish as to think it can answer. This is an introspective work, where the obvious intention is to provoke the viewer to examine his or her own life and relationships.
Haigh relies heavily on his two stars to pull this off, and there’s no denying that they are more than up to the task at hand. While Rampling fully deserves her accolades and her Oscar nomination (let’s face it, if she wins, it’s as much a cumulative award as a single performance), Tom Courtenay is easily her equal here, and he seems to be almost overlooked. That’s not surprising, since the character of Kate is the showier of the two. Yet she’s strangely the less filled out. Her past prior to Geoff is largely a blank, and it’s left that way, partially because Geoff appears to have no interest in it. And, while Geoff seems pretty completely self-contained, perhaps even self-absorbed, he occasionally offers insights that suggest he understands much more than he says.
There’s a heavy melancholy that hangs over the film, and the ending is sufficiently ambivalent and somber to offer little comfort. Still, 45 Years is in no way a depressing film, unless you find life itself a depressing affair. I suspect your response to it will depend greatly on the baggage you bring to it. And that, I believe, is what the film is after — for us to reflect on that aspect of ourselves, our need to know and our desire not to know too much. Rated R for language and brief sexuality.