Despite sharing our lives with those who we consider our nearest and dearest, do we ever really know a person? This is one of the questions that Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years ponders. Using the bonds of marriage as a jumping off point, Haigh’s drama offers an intimate look at a couple whose lengthy union is not without its fair share of secrets.
Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) are approaching their 45th wedding anniversary. Weathering the ups and downs that come with life and love, the childless couple decides to mark the occasion by throwing a grand party. With the event a mere week away, Geoff receives a letter that not only opens up old memories, but threatens to jeopardize his marriage as well.
Discovering that Swiss authorities have found the body or his former lover Katya, 50 years after accidentally falling into an Alpine crevasse, Geoff takes the news hard. However, his grief is nothing in comparison to the anguish that Kate feels. Though she knew her husband dated Katya prior to their ever meeting, Kate was unaware of the true extent of their relationship. Now smelling the dead woman’s perfume around the house, and observing Geoff’s strange and secretive behaviour, Kate cannot help but look at her husband in a whole new light.
One of the striking things about Haigh’s understated observation of the couple is the way he conveys their struggles to cope with the pain within. They each try to keep their true feelings close to the chest. By time an angered and tired Kate tells Geoff that she has so much she wants to say but can’t, the audience understands exactly what she means. For the words she wants to say could potentially end the marriage, something she does not necessarily want to do. However, staying in the marriage would require a level of forgiveness she is not sure she is ready to give. It also does not help that Geoff, in his grief, is sneaking around the attic like a prowler in the night digging up Katya’s old photos and artifacts.
Rather than simply conveying these emotions through lengthy speeches, 45 Years lets music and body language establish the poetic sadness of the central conflict. In one luminously heartbreaking scene, Haigh firmly plants his camera as Kate takes a break to tickle the ivories on her piano. The seemingly light interlude is anything but. Similar to the tonally rich brooding tune she plays, Kate’s physical demeanour can no longer mask the heartache crushing her soul. Haigh is able to effectively use this technique once again in the film’s stunning final moments.
As if conducting a delicate orchestra, Haigh gives his actors the room needed to bring this touching symphony of emotions to a crescendo. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are brilliant in the lead roles. Rampling in particular really shines when Kate tries, unsuccessfully, to bottle up the overflowing emotions. 45 Years does not offer any clear cut answers on where the couple will go from here, but it does not need to. It simply asks the audience to observe a couple who must come to terms with the fact that we never truly know a person as well as we would like to believe we do.