45 Years Review
Few films are made about the ups and downs of marriage – especially when it comes to retirees. With 45 Years, Andrew Haigh endeavours to correct this omission. The resulting film is a moving but stilted creation.
The story focuses on Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling), a retired schoolteacher who lives with her husband Jeff (Tom Courtenay) in the Norfolk countryside. The pair are happily readying themselves for their 45-year anniversary celebration when the arrival of a letter disturbs their marital peace.
Prior to meeting his wife, Jeff had a lover who died in a tragic accident; the missive announces that her body has finally been found. His renewed grief upsets Kate as she discovers that the story is more complex than she initially thought. Tension escalates as both live with the knowledge that their relationship was only made possible by the young woman’s death.
Haigh demonstrates how fragile a marriage can be, even after decades of companionship. The ease with which the relationship is shaken by a long-past event is surprising, yet highly believable. Rampling gives a stunning performance, especially in silent moments as the camera observes her day to day – a painful train of thought visibly simmering beneath her expressions. Courtenay shows Jeff absorbed in his emotions and oblivious to those of his wife, pottering about in the perfect exemplar of a withdrawn old man.
The film’s dialogue, however, is disappointing. The majority of the time it sounds like that of a novel being read out loud; all the characters are oddly formal and formulaic with each other. Only Courtenay’s late-night accounts of Jeff’s former lover seem natural – and are powerful. His discussions with Kate in all other instances fail to reveal the intimacy you would expect in a 45-year partnership. However, the actors more than make up for this in non-verbal acting, and it is no surprise that this earned each a Silver Bear for Best Actor/Actress at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.
Haigh uses the beauty of the green fields, forests, and grey skies of Norfolk skilfully, achieving a calming yet melancholic effect. However, audiences might wonder whether sponsorship could have led the film to include local tourist attractions – a Trafalgar ballroom and the Broads canals – with a rather heavy hand. Audiences shouldn’t have to hear a potted history of a council hall, or a boat tour guide when not relevant to the plot.
45 Years is a poignant and much-needed study of marital life, in which Rampling and Courtenay deliver remarkable performances. Unfortunately, the writing let down somewhat this compelling subject material.