As much as we prefer it to be the opposite, people are complex creatures who will still have layers of unknown details and secrets hiding inside them, no matter how much we purport to know someone "inside and out". I can't imagine a more intimate and complete synergy between two people than a couple who have been together for almost fifty years. We imagine that to be a very long time, long enough for each party to be privy to every single detail of their partner's life, past, and even innermost thoughts. Yet even with a marriage that lasts a lifetime, there may be secrets hidden in the deep crevices of the past, big enough to force someone to reevaluate the meaning of the whole relationship.
This is what happens to Kate (Charlotte Rampling), who prepares to celebrate her 45th wedding anniversary with her headstrong husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay). The couple lives in a quiet and peaceful countryside in England, and their lives seem to be equally quiet and peaceful. That is, until Geoff gets news that his ex-girlfriend Katya's body has been found in Switzerland after being missing for fifty years. During the early 60s, Geoff and Katya went mountain climbing, which ended with Katya tragically falling through a crack and disappearing.
The discovery of Katya's body floods Geoff with more emotion than perhaps such a short-lived relationship would normally result in, motivating Kate to probe deeper into Geoff's life previous to their marriage. Did Geoff lie about still having strong feelings for Katya when he first started dating Kate? Was the couple married, or was about to be married before the accident occurred? Does Katya's ghost still has a substantial presence in the couple's lives, even after fifty years?
A more melodramatic approach would have found Kate going on a fact-finding mission to Switzerland, only to return with a shocking truth about her husband, so that the third act can explode in a climax of heated monologues about the importance of loyalty and love. Even though these themes remain in 45 Years, writer/director Andrew Haigh focuses on the subtle but substantial changes that Kate goes through regarding the very foundation of her marriage, with a patient and introspective approach similar to his previous critically acclaimed drama, 2011's Weekend.
The great Charlotte Rampling's Oscar nomination for her performance, coupled with the raves she got from critics, might lead some audiences to imagine her role as more of a generic emotional rollercoaster found in many Oscar-bait dramas, with occasional outbursts that would put Beatrice Straight's legendary scene in Network to shame. This is far from what we eventually get from Rampling, who expertly externalizes her rising inner conflict about her marriage, until we get to the final shot that manages to communicate immense heartbreak with a single look.
As much as I appreciate Haigh's slow build approach to his projects, I couldn't help but shake the feeling that 45 Years might have worked better as a short film. The screenplay itself was adapted from a short story by David Constantine, and Haigh doesn't really add much in terms of narrative content to justify the film's already fairly short 90-minute runtime. I understand that the extensive dialogue-free scenes of Kate trying to grapple with the true realities of her marriage are essential, if not a bit overlong, for the audience to be privy to Kate's various regrets and resentments. However, the many establishing shots that are peppered around the film begin to wear thin early on by remaining on screen for far longer than they should have.
45 Years has an evenly lit and fairly realistic look, like a contemporary chamber drama adapted to cinema. However, the gorgeous countryside is captured beautifully in this crisp and clean 1080p presentation, despite the film's appropriately flat cinematography.
The DTS-HD 5.1 track we get here is overkill, since this is a film that works best during many of its quiet and introspective moments. The majority of 45 Years consists of hushed dialogue coming out of a couple of septuagenarians, so you won't miss much by listening to it through regular TV speakers.
We get nothing.
Even though I didn't think of it as a modern masterpiece the way many other critics seem to have it, mainly due to the slow pacing that's overtly languid even for an art-house drama, 45 Years is a thought-provoking and tender study into how much of themselves a couple can, or should, give each other, even after a lifetime of commitment. Also, kudos to Haigh for having the courage to show old people actually people having sex. According to most movies, any couple over fifty only cuddle and, gasp, occasionally kiss.