Andrew Haigh broke onto the film scene with his touching sophomore effort Weekend in 2011, following his 2009 directorial debut Greek Pete, and since then has been the writer, co-creator, and director of the TV show Looking, focusing on a group of gay men and their ongoing relationship issues. In his latest film, 45 Years, as with his other works, Haigh examines and highlights relationships that aren’t normally represented in mainstream cinema. The fact that he does so without celebration or spectacle, presenting them for the ordinary relationships they are, makes his work a refreshing change from more mainstream films.
The film tells the story of Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) who are five days away from celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary with a party. Amidst all the chaos of organising the big event, Geoff receives a letter from Switzerland, notifying him that the body of his former lover has been discovered frozen in ice, preserved perfectly since the accident 50 years ago. The news affects both Kate and Geoff in different ways, and we follow the couple over the course of the week, as their anniversary party draws closer.
The important thing to say about 45 Years is that the story isn’t the important thing here: the reactions of the characters are. By examining the normality of their daily life – each day starting with Kate walking the dog, making cups of tea, going to the shops and so on – the effects of Geoff’s news on the pair is highlighted as these ordinary tasks start to break down over the course of the week.
Giving possibly the performance of her career, Charlotte Rampling perfectly reflects Kate’s conflicted feelings. She tells her husband that she can’t really be mad at him for something that happened 50 years ago, but her face reveals her true feelings. By focusing solely on Rampling’s face for the majority of conversations between her and Geoff, we are privy to every emotion she feels, and her stunning performance lets us feel every nuance.
As with Weekend, there is barely any soundtrack, which is not to say music doesn’t play an important role in the film. The only music we hear is within the scenes itself, and serves as a purpose to trigger memories, fond or otherwise. The musical choices reflect the long history Kate and Geoff have shared together, which adds to the contrast in later scenes when it becomes clear how little they actually know each other.
Keeping the story simple and refined, Haigh gives us a well-executed character study, looking at how a long-term relationship can get turned upside-down in a matter of days. A riveting performance by Charlotte Rampling gives this film its edge, and proves once again that Haigh is one of the UK’s most exciting new directors.