When you stop to think about it, it really is kind of crazy how many great actors the United Kingdom has produced and continues to produce. I don’t know if it’s that Shakespearian heritage or what but they clearly take the craft of the actor very seriously and they have a very deep bench they can draw from, and they also have no shortage of veteran actors. The surplus of dames and sirs in that country is such that need to produce more movies about septuagenarians than most countries do. Sometimes that means they get middling crap like The Exotic Marigold Hotel or Quartet made in search of that “grey dollar” but sometimes it means that quality films come out that explore aging in interesting ways that feel unique and insightful. One example of this is the new movie 45 Years, which features two of the less appreciated veteran British thespians: Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay.
45 Years focuses in on Kate and Geoff Mercer, an aging married couple played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, who are planning a celebration for their 45th wedding anniversary. The two of them have been living a very quiet middle class life on what appears to be a rural property just outside of a town. All seems to be going well for both of them when Geoff gets a letter from Swiss authorities telling him that they’ve discovered the body of his ex-girlfriend, who died in an accident while the two of them were vacationing in the Alps in the 60s and whose remains had never heretofore been discovered. This development puts Geoff into a bit of a funk as it seems to make him contemplate the life he could have lived and reflect on what he didn’t accomplish. This is distressing to Kate, who begins to feel threatened by Geoff’s reflections and suddenly begins to ponder her own decisions in life.
Whenever you hear about a couple that’s been together for decades its generally assumed that it’s because they have everything figured out; that they’re so comfortable together and so mature that they’re going to be living in harmonious bliss (or at least comfortable contentedness) until one of them dies. By contrast 45 Years suggest that aged married couples are just as prone to same insecurities and communication breakdowns that the rest of us struggle with. The particular situation causing all the trouble here probably could have been averted if the two principals had maybe been a bit more attentive to what their partner was going through. On one hand Geoff probably could have realized that he was causing his wife distress sooner and adjusted his behavior more quickly, but honestly I kind of feel like more of the blame for this one is on Kate. Reminiscing about an old flame and letting that distract you is probably not the most considerate thing for a guy to do, but as mid-life crises go this behavior is not that far out of line. If Kate had just given Geoff a bit of space for a few weeks while he went through his existential reflections instead of trying to make the whole thing about herself she might have gotten out of the whole thing a bit better off.
The film was directed by Andrew Haigh, a relatively young filmmaker who made his breakthrough a couple years ago with another small mostly dialogue driven film called Weekend. In the time since he made that film he’s evolved a bit as a visual stylist, though this is still by and large a film about dialogue performed by actors and there are two great ones here. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtney both have the challenge of having to convey a sense of deep internal struggle that’s masked by polite outside manners. Rampling in particular needs to really convey a lot just with facial expressions, particularly in a number of scenes where she’s alone and can safely express certain emotions that she holds back in other scenes. Tom Courtney hasn’t gotten as much attention as Rampling, but don’t let that lead you to think that he isn’t doing great work here as well. In some ways he actually has a more challenging role because his character is kept more at a distance and doesn’t have those solo scenes where he can put his cards on the table for the audience.
The highlight of 45 Years is almost certainly its final scene, which I won’t discuss in too much detail here. I’ll just say that it ends on a deliciously abrupt and ambiguous note that’s executed perfectly. You leave the theater not quite sure what is to become of both of the characters and that could provide a lot of fuel for discussion afterwards. As a whole, 45 Years is a quiet and interesting little character study. The film certainly shows that Andrew Haigh is one of the most interesting filmmakers working in the British cinema and not the fluke one hit wonder that a small indie like Weekend could have turned him into. I wouldn’t say that it does anything that’s particularly new or revolutionary but for the type of thing it is it’s very well made. I’d recommend seeing it in theaters while you can because this is not the kind of movie that would really work if you watch it with all the distractions that are pretty much inherent in modern home viewing.
***1/2 out of Four