Days before the celebration of her forty-fifth marriage anniversary to Geoff, Kate is told by her friend Charlotte, “When I think of how awful George was before our fortieth, I was that close to divorcing him.” Kate asks her, “Should I not be having a party?” “No, no, no, no, no,” Charlotte replies, “You have to. That’s the strange thing: how much he cried, and not just during the speeches. We [women, DA] hold it together because we realize how important these things are.” Little does Charlotte know that these few days will be equally, if not more, of a strain to and an urgent test of the strength of Kate and Geoff’s marriage.
Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years delineates the six days leading up to Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling) Mercer’s celebration of their forty-fifth wedding anniversary (in her consultation with the landlord of the event’s venue, once he comments how their forty-fifth is a strange milestone to commemorate, Kate explains that they had to shelve the celebratory plans for their fortieth, as Geoff was having bypass surgery). The Monday prior to their Saturday festivities, Geoff receives a letter in German telling him that the body of Katya, Geoff’s first love who fell into a glacial fissure in Switzerland, has been located below the ice. An enigmatic figure to Kate, Katya has been barely discussed by Geoff throughout her marriage to him. Though still very reticent and selectively secretive about it, Geoff finally realizes that he needs to start being honest about his relationship with the sweetheart of his youth, and slowly begins to unearth memories and reflections that will induce painful meditations for both him and his wife over the significance of their marriage.
Half an hour into 45 Years, Geoff tells Kate, “These glaciers – they’re melting a lot more than people imagined – the water is just not coming down. It’s saturating into the rock beneath; it’s building up, and up, and up: it’s waiting, waiting, and then down like a tsunami, wiping out everything in its path.” Of course, he refers to the physical phenomenon that must occur before Katya’s body may be retrieved, but it becomes a device in foreshadowing what will be the very crux of their trajectory as a couple, and accentuating a parallel metaphor for the welling up of their suppressed emotions and secrets and the truth eventually bursting through.
For a film with a premise that is very melodramatic, the execution itself is subtle. Though Tom Courtenay and especially Charlotte Rampling, winners of the Berlin Film Festival’s Best Actor and Actress prizes, turn in gently calibrated, beautifully layered, and slow-burning performances, the true star of the film is its exquisite structuring, and the eloquent, though never heavy-handed, gently landing metaphors of its sophisticated screenplay. Although it is not without its dramatic bedside scenes (that beg loose comparisons to Ingmar Bergman’s landmark Scenes from a Marriage), 45 Years aims not just to be an elongated sizzle reel of constantly evolving drama from start to finish, as these movies so often have a tendency to do. True to reality, as even the most troubled of couples waking up the next morning after a night of heated arguments, Geoff and Kate must lay their grievances aside, even if momentarily, as life must go on and practical utility cannot be ignored: scrambled eggs must be made, and dogs must still be walked.
45 Years may not be instantly devastating in the vein of high drama, but its modestly rendered, earnest contemplations are more thought-provoking than the common frenzied, violently passionate sort of approaches to similar material. As such, what 45 Years achieves is something that promises to be more gratifying, more insightful, and more enduring.