Retired couple Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) should have celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary five years ago, but Geoff became sick so the celebration was delayed. Now, with just a week to go before their 45th, the finishing touches are falling into place for a new, make-up celebration. Then the mail arrives.
In the new British character driven drama from writer/director Andrew Haigh, 45 Years, retiree Geoff Mercer receives some unexpected news. It’s a letter from Switzerland and it’s written in German, but Geoff gamely tries to translate. “I think it says they’ve found her,” he tells Kate with some confusion. The subject of the letter is a woman called Katya who back in ’62 was on a romantic European hiking trip with boyfriend Geoff. A terrible accident followed. Katya fell to her death into a deep, Alpine crevasse. The body was never recovered. Until now.
In what sounds a like a terrible, bizarre joke, all these years later, the body of Katya has been found, frozen in a glacier in the Swiss mountains. The authorities have yet to retrieve her – the ice has yet to fully melt – but they can see her down there, and she’s perfectly preserved. The news is a shock to Geoff’s system as he reflects back on the events that occurred forty-eight years ago; three years before marrying Kate. “She’ll look like she did in ’62,” Geoff muses with the sound of regret, “And I look like this.”
The power of these early moments in the film hit hard, not because of Geoff’s reaction to the letter from the Swiss authorities, but because of Kate’s, illustrated in the subtle, nuanced way Charlotte Rampling plays her. “I can hardly be cross for something that existed before we existed,” she states, then pauses and quietly adds as an afterthought as though talking to herself, “Still…”
Throughout the slowly-paced film, Kate’s character is full of those damaging afterthoughts, and they slowly build within. While Geoff takes to smoking again as he quietly looks back on his twenty-something past with Katya, we see Kate do the same, but from a different perspective.
The what-might-have-beens between her husband and his previous girlfriend of the early sixties are eating Kate alive, but she doesn’t show it, not in any grandstanding, confrontational way. With that calm, British demeanor of keeping thoughts and feelings firmly within, Kate takes to long walks in the rural area of Norfolk where she lives, or daytime boat rides on the waterways of the Norfolk Broads while she quietly reflects. With just days to go before her 45th wedding anniversary, now with thoughts of her husband’s previous love – a woman she never even knew – Kate’s viewpoint on her marriage is forever changed
Despite an age difference – Courtenay is almost a decade older than Rampling – the casting is good. Like the recent Youth where Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel aged snugly into their septuagenarian roles, so, too, have Courtenay and Rampling, and it’s Rampling who has never been better. Despite Kate’s attempt to always appear in control of her emotions, the inner turmoil she feels and the resulting pain experienced can’t be disguised. When Kate declares, “It’s like she’s been standing in the room all the time behind my back,” you know the wounds she’s now feeling within are real. Whether you sympathize or whether you believe Kate’s pain is self-inflicted is what makes 45 Years work so well. It’s a fascinating watch.
Director Haigh uses music as an important way of commenting on situations and memories. There’s no original score, but from time to time you’ll catch parts of a sixties song that somehow underlines the moment without you realizing it, but they’re there. At the opening during some contented, happier moments before the letter, when Kate and Geoff go about their daily business in their country home, the small radio in the kitchen plays Dusty Springfield’s I Only Want To Be With You. Later, the choice of song becomes more ironic when Kate and Geoff go through early photographs of themselves pinned to an anniversary board; it’s The Turtles’ Happy Together. When in the car, Gary Puckett’s Young Girl plays on the car stereo, resulting with Kate angrily changing the channel. And at the devastating fade out, it’s The Moody Blues and Go Now. It’s not simply the title of the song that matches the moment, it’s the lyrics.
The question of whether her husband ever really fell out of love with girlfriend Katya is what haunts Kate, and it’s the kind of premise that, as a piece of entertainment, benefits from watching the film with someone – preferably a friend rather than your other half – so that you can discuss and debate on the ride home. There’s a question Kate asks of Geoff that you instinctively know she should never have asked, and worse, Geoff should never have answered. “If she didn’t die, would you have still married her?” Kate asks one night while in bed. An issue with Geoff is that he tends to be direct with his thoughts; insensitive to Kate’s possible reaction. When he responds with, “Yes,” there’s no profit to be had with his honest reply. Kate turns over. “I don’t think I can talk about her anymore.” It’s at that moment you know that things between them can never be the same, and the 45 year wedding anniversary celebration is just days away.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 93 Minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)