Having already impressed audiences with his feature debut Weekend and short-lived HBO series Looking, British director Andrew Haigh is back with his second feature, 45 Years. Haigh once again demonstrates his incredible ability to express enormous emotion in moments of apparent mundanity as he explores the dissolution of a relationship in its twilight years.
After the discovery of a young woman’s frozen body in a glacier in the Alps prompts a trip down memory lane for Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay), his wife, Kate (Charlotte Rampling), must contend with the fact that she might not have been the great love of her husband’s life. Haigh makes the intelligent decision to take a step back and simply allow his enormously talented cast to shine. Rampling, especially, is an absolute delight to watch, perfectly capturing the way a well-adjusted, mature person can be brought to their knees by the destructive powers of obsession and insecurity. Courtenay also enthrals—as a man whose age has left him weakened both physically and mentally, but whose non-threatening outward appearance masks enormous depths of anger and regret.
The film’s title refers to a party Geoff and Kate are planning, to celebrate their 45-year anniversary after their 40th anniversary was disturbed by Geoff’s ill health. This naturally puts Kate and Geoff in a place where they are more prone to putting their lives in perspective, especially as they look at their friends—whose now adult children serve as a reminder of Geoff and Kate’s lack of tangible legacy. This mutual introspection is impacted by the sudden discovery of a young woman’s body, perfectly preserved, buried in a glacier in the Alps.
This frozen corpse spurs the narrative, but also serves as a canny metaphor for Geoff’s relationship with his suppressed memories. Though Geoff might be content with his comfortable-yet-childless living situation, and though he might even love his wife, once he starts delivering long, meandering monologues describing his feelings for his lost love, it becomes clear that his loss is something that he has never really processed or moved on from. His own reluctance to succumb to the inevitable tides of age exacerbates his obsession with this still youthful body and all that it represents.
Naturally, the all-consuming nature of Geoff’s fixation quickly seeps into Kate’s own mind, poisoning her perception of the life that she has built and leading her to begin her own ill-fated exploration of her husband’s past. Watching Rampling engage with her increasingly erratic husband, going from humouring him initially before growing angry then eventually submitting to her despair—is equal parts fascinating and agonizing. Both Courtenay and Rampling bring so much depth to these characters that they feel almost entirely like real people, rendering the film’s most emotionally bleak scenes all the more difficult to bear.
Though Haigh’s style of filmmaking generally leans towards at Dogme 95-esque commitment to realism, he does reward the audience with at least one visually stunning scene where Kate cycles through pictures from Geoff’s fateful hiking trip, her face a mask of anguish, illuminated only by a projector. Beyond this scene, however, the grey foggy colour palette of this film grounds the audience in the melancholy world of the couple, punctured occasionally with warmer earth-tones in the film’s less aggressively downbeat domestic scenes.
The decision to divide the film into chapters for each day of the week make the film seem fractured or disjointed at times, giving the film an episodic feel that tarnishes the elegant slow crawl towards the inevitable anniversary party. This, however, does little to lessen the film’s impact, and it remains an astounding piece of cinema. Haigh once again proves himself to be one of the most interesting voices in British cinema and deserves enormous praise for crafting an exceptional showcase for his veteran stars.
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