starring Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay
written and directed by Andrew Haigh
by Walter Chaw Andrew Haigh's 45 Years turns on a fifty-year-old mystery that resurfaces in the week before the 45th wedding anniversary of Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay), causing the couple to reassess what they know of each other and their place in their relationship. It's a slow unravelling, and Haigh trusts his cast to a laudable extent. In the film's best, most visually interesting moment, he has Kate look at slides projected against a sheet in the extreme foreground. Kate herself, visible to the left of the sheet, is crammed into the eave beneath a slanted attic ceiling. Her interpretation of what she's seeing dawns on her face--creeps across it like shadows pulling back across the course of a day. It's an extraordinary moment in a film full of them. Look, too, to the scene immediately following when Kate picks Geoff up from some afternoon event, and how she holds the steering wheel while he rails on about exactly everything that isn't important. The very definition of an actor's workshop and a character drama, 45 Years attacks the idea that things get easier as you get older. Geoff's toast at their anniversary party speaks to how when one gets older life provides fewer big decisions, so all one's left with is regret at the big decisions already made. In many ways, the film is about that sort of nostalgia. In many others, it's as bitter as Make Way for Tomorrow. Imagine that film, or Tokyo Story, without children.
I struggled for a long time with how I felt about the ending. Already teased, it's a shot of Kate's face and whatever it is that's registering for her. It's not unlike the end of The 400 Blows in that way: enigmatic, pregnant with our knowledge and hers. I like a moment earlier when Kate's picking out the venue to host their party and notes after the unctuous manager tells her that this is where they held the launch banquet prior to the Battle of Trafalgar, "Didn't Nelson die in that battle?" 45 Years is barbed in that way. Smart. Sad. When asked why Kate suddenly regrets not being the type of person to take pictures of her life with Geoff, she struggles before offering that perhaps she'd like memento mori of their dead pets. When her sister and their friends make a surprise photo collage culled from their own collections to present to them, it's hard to read how they feel about seeing the past. Certainly, throughout the rest of the film, pictures are painful reminders of secrets and missed opportunities. Call it a naturalistic thriller in which the external catalyst is the melting of a glacier (a theme that recurs throughout), and the thickening of the chase is a shot through a ladder as Kate demands to see something...and is instantly very sorry that she did.
45 Years is a patient film. It's the best kind of horror movie (though most wouldn't put it in that category), because it understands that the only thing as horrible as it is inevitable is transformation. A sex scene mid-film captures a lot of what Cronenberg talks about in his movies: that we're all museums of natural history eventually, each of us biological diaries of decrepitude. Rampling delivers a performance for the ages. It's transparent. She goes through every emotion, plays every role in the relationship, explodes, represses, manages politesse to preserve her dignity, and then at the very end, finds herself without any reserves to continue to do so. She asks at one point whether the purpose of anniversary parties is to make husbands cry while they are acknowledging, in what can be rare among men, the extent to which they are dependant upon their wives. It's a loaded question. At the end of it all, it's a haunted one, too. 45 Years is about what happens when you discover at the end of the journey that there never was a destination. It's Kafka's "Before the Law": Only when it's over do you understand that there was no future, just a collection of wrong answers, bad choices, and squandered nows. It's a tough film, lingering in my memory.