A forty-fifth wedding anniversary is a slightly odd one to celebrate, but the occasion at the heart of Andrew Haigh’s follow-up to his acclaimed gay romance Weekend reflects its theme of getting on with life in the face of adversity. The couple celebrating are Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay), having skipped their 40th anniversary due to illness. When circumstances don’t allow you to carry on as you’d like, you find a way around it. Practicality and resilience are the basis of the best marriages, and our central pair are about to have theirs sorely tested.”
With less than a week to go to the celebrations, Geoff receives a letter notifying him of a grim discovery. The body of a former girlfriend, Katya, has been found preserved in the Swiss Alps fifty years after she fell to her death on a glacier. This could easily feel far-fetched, but the film executes it exquisitely. There are no hysterics, no shouting matches, no rain-sodden apologies. It calmly and quietly pins identifiable emotions on proceedings. Geoff is naturally taken aback. Externally he remains calm, but a certain restlessness and his newly-rediscovered smoking habit betray his turmoil. Kate reacts coolly, a mix of support for her husband and slowly-mounting anger. This woman died before Kate ever met Geoff, but Kate still feels a sense of instability creeping into their cosy home. Questions both obvious and unexpected raise their ugly heads. How can one be jealous of the dead? How can someone be so beholden to a memory? Even after four-and-a-half decades, uncertainty can threaten from the sidelines, like the draught and the memories that threaten from the couple’s attic.
As the couple in question, Rampling and Courtenay deliver two masterclasses in understated trauma. The film doesn’t highlight or downplay either actor’s past roles or image. Both actors have aged onscreen, but their inherent dignity (not to mention their obvious talents) are allowed to bloom, shorn of the expectations of youth. Courtenay is terrific; his quiet old-school grief contrasts with hints of the raffish charm that made his name in Billy Liar. As the tale unfolds primarily from Kate’s point of view, Rampling has more to do. Torn between love and feelings of betrayal, Kate is forced to internalise her feelings all the more, letting the slightest of frowns, a heavy sigh or the touch of a hand to convey so much. Delivering complexity with minimum fuss, Rampling is quietly magnificent.
Constantly, romantic cinema tells us that relationships are the result of hard work on both sides, and yet so many of the same films deliver a ‘happy ever after’. Haigh’s keen emotional intelligence, in both his script (adapted from David Constantine’s short story) and direction, overrides any concessions to expectations. There’s little romanticising of the Norfolk setting; fog hems the fields in ethereal fences, and the sky provides only an overcast backdrop. Though not inelegant, these choices ultimately serve to focus our attention on the two leads. At the heart of 45 Years are two people, identifiably comfortable, intelligent and weathering life’s storms. Despite their years, they still flirt, they still dance and they still have sex. If Weekend was upfront about the realities and intimacies of gay relationships, 45 Years covers much the same ground in its portrayal of an older relationship (Haigh has said he sees the two films as companion pieces). Sensuality is but one of many traits seniors are ill-afforded onscreen; the relationship has to have some constants to have lasted that long, and intimacy is but one of them. This emotional potency and honesty distinguishes 45 Years. Its power lies not in accelerated pulses, but in lingering silences and worried glances. The immediate effect may seem timid, but echoes of Rampling’s slowly-saddening face or the Platters song ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’ will permeate the memory days after. It’s a gentle little heartbreaker.