With powerful performances from Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years looks back in anger on love.
Enduring Loveby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
After the breakthrough success of Weekend, Andrew Haigh returns with 45 Years. This time without the gay-centred storyline but with two veterans of the screen in tow, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. It’s a step towards the mainstream for the British indie director, but with a sensitive and delicately plotted script, 45 Years redefines Haigh’s style – as a director of profound humanism. And it’s not just Tom Courtenay’s brilliant performance as septuagenarian Geoff, living out his retirement with early-onset Alzheimer’s, or even Charlotte Rampling’s Kate, slowly overcome with jealousy when the ghosts of Geoff’s significant other come to light. But somehow it’s in the film’s wistful autumnal tone – a keen melancholy in a minor key, that sees Kate and Geoff celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary rather than their 40th due to Geoff’s illness or that melts the ice of a Swiss glacier to deliver the corpse of Geoff’s German girlfriend fifty years later.
Monday. It’s six days before Kate and Geoff celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary with all their family and friends. And while Kate busies herself with getting the venue shipshape, last-minute gifts and final preparations, Geoff receives a letter in the post from the Swiss police, informing him (in German) of the recovery of his former girlfriend Katya’s body, lost in a glacier for fifty years, and inviting him to identify the body. It’s a relevation that unearths a buried chapter in Geoff’s life as he takes to the attic to dig out photographs and journals and revisit forgotten memories, but that also cuts Kate to the core as she becomes unsettled by the spectre of Geoff’s former love, who Geoff would have stayed with if not for the accident and who would have given him the children she couldn’t. It’s enough to cast doubt over their 45-year marriage, as by Saturday Kate becomes increasingly uncertain as to whether it’s worth celebrating at all.
How does a happy marriage of 45 years come undone within six days, that’s the question that Andrew Haigh poses with his subtle relationship drama 45 Years. It’s not childlessness or adultery, boredom or ill health, but rather a nebulous feeling of blind chance that chips away at the bedrock of Kate and Geoff’s relationship. For Geoff, nothing’s really changed. Except for the ghost of romances past melting back into his present day consciousness. But for Kate, it’s as if their whole married life could have been a lie. A ghost standing in the corner of their living room that she cannot see, a wisp of perfume that she cannot smell. As if she never really knew what Geoff was thinking all that time. As if she doesn’t really know him. It’s a difficult story to pull off, but 45 Years works, thanks overwhelmingly to brilliantly nuanced and understated performances from Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling.
There are two stand-out moments in particular, as Kate accuses Geoff of thinking she’s not enough for him – as if the perfume of Katya has floated through their house all this time, a ghost in the corner behind her back. And then the party finale as the couple lead the first dance to The Platters’ Smoke Gets In Your Eyes – a desperate, teary-eyed Kate deciding with violent resistance that she can no longer stomach celebrating the success of their marriage. But Rampling and Courtenay are also more than ably supported by Geraldine James and David Sibley, who evoke an atmosphere of refined, middle-aged Norfolk of second-hand bookshops and coffee shops. And of course with Haigh’s own script adapted from the novel In Another Country by David Constantine, which is both illuminating and intelligent while letting the performances do the real talking.
An intense observation of a lifetime of marriage unravelled in one week, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years is perhaps just a little too delicate, relying on unspoken assumptions to build an emotional arc that never devastates quite the way it should. Nevertheless, charming and quietly unsettling, 45 Years provides a neat, poetic counterpoint to Weekend, its couple separated this time by the past rather than the future. A ghost story with a difference, and an intensely haunting portrait of marriage taking fright on the Norfolk broads.
45 Years is released on 28th August 2015 in the UK