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45 Years (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 25, 2020

45 Years

45 Years

45 YEARS (2015)

Starring Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, Dolly Wells, David Sibley, Sam Alexander and Richard Cunningham.

Screenplay by Andrew Haigh.

Directed by Andrew Haigh.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures.  93 minutes.  Rated R.

How well can you ever know a person?  Even if you have spent decades living together, and are considered by all your friends to be the epitome of domestic bliss, there are still secrets from the past that can come out of nowhere to blindside you.

45 Years is one of the most devastating films you’ll see this year, though not much really happens in it.  It just gives us intimate access to the lives of a content elderly couple in the week leading up to their 45th anniversary party.  Geoff and Kate Mercer (Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling) are living in a quiet retired existence, puttering around a small British village home, walking their dog, hanging out with friends, reading in bed, the normal modest rewards of a life well lived.  Everything feels comfortable and perfect, when a figurative bombshell is suddenly tossed into their settled existence.

This bombshell comes in the form of a letter to Geoff.  The body of his former lover Katya – who died with him in a mountain-climbing accident 50 years earlier – has been found after all these years.  Apparently climate change has melted a glacier enough that the body has been exposed, still preserved deep in the ice.

Now before your mind starts spinning off wildly, no, it’s not one of those movies.  We have no reason to disbelieve his story of her death.  He and Katya were climbing on the Alps with a guide.  He had fallen a bit behind them when he heard her scream, and found the guide staring down a fissure into which she slipped.  No one ever suspected Geoff in her death, and no one does now.

45 Years has a much more subtle and subversive agenda.

The reappearance of Katya in Geoff’s life – he had given Kate a vague overview of what happened, but never went into great detail about their relationship – dredges up a whole lot of long-forgotten feelings in the elderly couple’s world.  Suddenly, many of the certainties of their lives and love are thrown into question.

The letter – which was sent to Geoff because the authorities thought he was the next of kin – throws Geoff into an odd funk.  He starts smoking again, although he had bypass surgery five years before.  Friends notice that he is becoming snippy and argumentative.  Plans he was looking forward to, he suddenly petulantly tries to avoid.  He starts sneaking off into the village, to check into the possibility of returning to Switzerland to pick up the body.

In the meantime, Geoff’s obvious distraught reaction to the news has Kate feeling irrationally jealous.  She catches him going through the attic, looking through old pictures and slides of his former love.  Later when she snoops in the attic herself, she finds the woman looked very much like Kate as a young woman.  Even their names – Katya and Kate – are suspiciously similar.  Has she only been a replacement for the one who got away for all these years?

Logically she knows that the woman is long dead, Geoff can never get her back.  But is still fires insecurities in her: how can she, a woman who has grown old and complacent with Geoff, compete for affection with the forever-young ghost of his long-lost love?  No matter how much Geoff assures her that she is being irrational, it is obvious to her that in some strange way she is losing her husband to the idealized memory of someone who has been dead for 50 years.

It’s emotionally fraught territory that is made even more harrowing by two wondrous performances.  One or the other is on screen almost the entire running time of the film and these old troupers are more than able to carry the weight.

These two actors, who have been doing spectacular work going back to the 1960s – Courtenay in the likes of Dr. Zhivago, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Let Him Have It, Rampling with Georgy Girl, The Night Porter, The Verdict and Swimming Pool – are arguably at their best ever here.  Particularly Rampling, whose quiet performance communicates a deep, abiding wave of pain and confusion in quiet, subtle looks.  She eschews the showy histrionics and fireworks that many lesser actresses would fall back on, and her performance is all the more devastating for the stoic brave face that Kate is trying unsuccessfully to convey.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2016 All rights reserved. Posted: June 13, 2016.

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