Andrew Haigh has become one of the most rewarding and exciting filmmakers in British independent cinema. Between his very impressive debut in 2011, Weekend, and the TV show Looking (which he co-created, directs and writes for – and has my favourite TV scene in 2015), he has established a distinctive intimacy to his work. Both of these explore meaningful connections and romances between individuals with nuance, naturalism and poignancy. These also happen to be twenty-something homosexual connections, something of personal relevance to Haigh. 45 Years changes course on this aspect only, applying the characteristics which have brought Haigh his acclaim to a story between two senior characters coming up to 45 years of marriage. This change – from one night and short lived connections looking forward, to real lived in shared lives reflecting back – provides an added satisfying theme of how relationships evolve to Haigh’s work. It shifts expectations from establishing an initial connection to exploring the potential severing of one; both are devastating and handled insightfully.
The film begins on Monday where Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) is planning a party to celebrate her 45th wedding anniversary to Geoff (Tom Courtenay) on the Saturday. On this Monday, Tom receives a letter alerting him of the discovery of his teenage lovers body, Katya, who was lost during a skiing trip. Over the course of the week in the lead up to the party, Geoff becomes increasingly preoccupied with the letter and his former lover. He searches through old photos, goes on contemplative walks, gradually becomes more distant and even plans a trip to Switzerland to see her body. The revelation and his consequential behaviour unsynch their marriage and naturally unsettle Kate, who has obviously lived with issues of inadequacy all these years; knowing about Katya and living with trepidation at wanting to know more. Their blissful life in the countryside is cast with unfamiliar dark shadows, ghostly hauntings and bubbling conflicts.
There’s an unspoken troubled past to this whole week of guilt determining preoccupations and decisions in the present. Geoff’s actions are less to do with youthful nostalgia and more about unresolved feelings, which have led the compromised of settling and compromising. Unlike Geoff’s aged body that he bears for Kate in the bathroom, Katya is preserved, and thus so is his youth. The lost hopes, aspirations and excitement for life wash over him and reassessments on how the reality of his life measures up to them taints this marriage even more. After 45 years of known and unknown conflicts, is this even a marriage worth celebrating? They’re an affectionate couple both between themselves and to us, like what our parents appear to be in our youthful innocence, with an obvious chemistry and spark. But what does it mean to settle and what are the consequences? “My Katjya”, the first we hear of her from Geoff, illustrates that she is the one who has a hold of Geoff and not Kate. It poses uneasy questions of whether you can truly know somebody else, and even know yourself enough to not be surprised at your motivations.
With all her fears of inadequacy, after 45 years Kate is content with knowing in herself that she is and has always been good enough for Geoff. But she doesn’t know if he feels the same way and, worse, cannot handle having anyone else consider the same. The party arrives and Geoff gives an emotional and touching speech celebrating his marriage. It’s the performance of his life after years of commendable performances, convincing himself and his wife of his feelings. As they relive their first dance, the beautiful ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ by The Platters, her realisation of Geoff’s performance both here and at times during their marriage is heartbreaking. Since that day 45 years ago, the smoke has got in her eyes and obscured her vision. It’s a remarkable closing scene of clarity.
The trajectory of the week and the characters is deftly managed. Rampling is simply sensational in her depiction of the relatively passive Kate and her disturbed, crippling psyche. She’s simultaneously dealing with a crippled spouse and with her own crippling horror of finally accepting what her life has amounted to after all these years. Both she and Courtenay won awards at Berlin Film Festival for their performances and they are affecting in their roles with equal weight and density behind them. But the film is told from Kate’s perspective and her emotional notes are conveyed with sharper and more probing depth. An attic scene in particular, which reveals a monumental discovery that Geoff has hidden, shatters her entire perception of their relationship. Her performance doesn’t merely touch the heart, it clutches it with a clamp force and squeezes infinite compassion out of it. There’s a resounding tenderness to Kate that renders her wholly sympathetic in this conflict. But the joy of watching this film is the complex and unnerving morality contained within it and the empathy that both characters do elicit. They share guilt and blame over the challenges that they now face. It’s as restrained as any of Haigh’s approaches have been, but just as alive.
For more of my in-depth analysis and thoughts on 45 Years, listen to episode 8 of the Project Projection podcast