Fraught nuances have knockout blows in Andrew Haigh‘s (Weekend, Looking) 45 Years, a heartbreaking glimpse into the quiet destruction of a long-married couple’s relationship. This cinematic tour de force features astounding performances from Charlotte Rampling and Sir Tom Courtenay.
Haigh adapts David Constantine’s short story which follows retired school teacher, Kate Mercer (Rampling) whose plans for her forty-fifth anniversary party are disrupted when her husband Geoff (Courtenay) receives an unsettling letter. This brings the news that the body of Geoff’s first love has been found frozen in a glacier, resulting in old feelings bubbling to the surface – feelings that throw the long married couple’s relationship into disarray.
The synopsis might read like 45 Years is a film packed with high melodrama, but Haigh’s is one of subtle dramatic heartbreak and not showy bouts of heightened emotion. There’s something intrinsically British about this tale of quiet marital destruction in rural England where our elegant protagonists both battle repressed forms of inner torment. The drama doesn’t come from wild screaming matches but pained nuances channelled tremendously by Rampling and Courtenay who are majestic as the couple with forty-five years of emotional history – which at points feels instantaneously rotten to the core.
Rampling and Courtenay’s expressive faces and closed-off mannerisms capture so much that dialogue simply could not convey. The pained looks into the distance and isolating behaviour Geoff exhibits captures the lost potential and continued grief-stricken heartache about losing his ‘first love’ that eats away at his marriage with Kate. Rampling captures the pressure-cooker feelings of Kate with a captivating intensity – beginning as support for her husband, frustration and jealousy soon rear their heads and turn to resentment. With no children of their own, Kate and Geoff work solely as a unit – and when one half weakens, the other follows.
Haigh quickly notches up the tension from the moment the letter arrives, with the director turning conventional domestic life into a minefield of emotional torment. Mystery builds slowly and Haigh reveals mounting titbits of Geoff’s enigmatic life pre-Kate – unveiling secrets that have lay dormant throughout this lengthy year marriage. There is an unobtrusive gaze cast over these events, but Haigh manages to convey a heavyweight dramatic intensity throughout. A scene where Kate ventures into the attic and uncovers a projector with slides of Geoff and first love Katya is handled with the brooding tension of a horror film – thanks to unsettled direction from Haigh, intense sound design (from harsh projector clicks with the impact of emotional gunshots), and chilling darkened cinematography from DoP Lol Crawley. These evocative aesthetics and powerhouse takes on conventional dramatic scenes help convey the ripple effects and subsequent crippling impact that this discovery has on the marriage.
There are moments of sweetness – from the couple attempting to rekindle their love life to reliving the music of their youth, but 45 Years finds its strength in slow-building intensity and pained expression. Rampling and Courtenay astound, whilst Haigh delivers the most impressive British drama this year.