Taking home Best Actor and Actress awards out of its premiere at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival for leads Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, Andrew Haigh’s accomplished third feature 45 Years solidified the British filmmaker’s international art-house reputation. Earning over four million at the box office and notably snagging Rampling her first Academy Award nomination, this is the second title of Haigh’s to be included in the illustrious Criterion collection, following the 2011 indie Weekend. Here the director proves to be quite astute at depictions of nuanced interactions in relationships. Without so much as a single screaming match, the filmmaker conveys the unique experiences and attitudes of a long term relationship, and provides a cinematic counterpart to something like Edward Albee’s famed disintegration into bitterness, bitchery, and alcoholism with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? But at its center is the divine Rampling as a woman who peels back the thick layer of superficiality that’s enveloped her relationship with someone she doesn’t know very well at all.
On the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary, for which they have a grand celebration scheduled, Kate (Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courteney) receive a letter from Switzerland, where the body of Tom’s ex-lover Katia has been found preserved perfectly in the ice. The letter immediately awakens memories for Geoff, and it’s clear he had quite passionate feelings for this woman, whom he knew several years before Kate. As the week leading to their wedding anniversary dwindles away, Kate becomes more and more distraught at Geoff’s increasingly cold and distant behavior, and she begins to realize difficult truths about their marriage.
Rampling has long been a cinematic staple, favored by a variety of European auteurs since breaking out in the late 1960s. Recently the muse of several Francois Ozon titles and appearing in a variety of notable works from major internationally renowned talents, the British actress is too often overlooked for accolades. Hopefully, beyond Berlin, her performance in 45 Years will change that (she’s won a Cesar but is still without Oscar glory, more a lack on that particular organization’s slate than hers). Here she gives an elegant, melancholy portrait of devastating realizations and believable emotional depths often depicted in exaggerated platitudes in many English speaking films.
Often, DoP Lol Crawley (Ballast; The Childhood of a Leader) focuses tightly on her, capturing her movements, expressions, reactions and eventual distractions. Courteney is equally nuanced, but our perspective of him is colored by his wife’s emotions, and thus it often feels like we’re getting a less clearly defined composite.
Based on a short story by David Constantine, 45 Years recalls a variety of literary cousins, from Kate Chopin’s short story “The Story of an Hour” to Joseph Conrad’s novella The Letter (filmed in 2005 as Gabrielle by Patrice Chereau), tales about an item or an instant immediately changing the behavior of its spouses and playing with audience assumptions. The ‘act’ of marriage is just as much for the benefit of others as those directly involved, here shown by Kate’s insistence that the members of the anniversary party have no idea about their recent distress.
As the supporting friend played by great character actress Geraldine James points out, these parties are for the unhappy wives, to provide a public venue for the confessional tears of the increasingly distant husband, an unsaid reiteration of vows and promises long forgotten in the daily grind of life (strangely, the notion of these celebrations and their reification of falsehoods feels like something from Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives under this lens). Select songs from the familiar soundtrack are used inventively, these being classic pop tracks from their youth, sporting lyrics as clueless as poems and songs on the subject today. There’s nowhere you’ll find a more saddening use of The Turtles’ “Happy Together” or The Platters “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” than what Haigh achieves here.
In many ways, 45 Years is a compelling companion piece to Haigh’s beautiful 2011 film, Weekend, also using time as a signifier to determine behaviors and emotions. Whereas that depicted the beginning of romance for a gay couple, Haigh’s representation of a (presumably) monogamous heterosexual union is equally adept, earning rightful comparisons to the tortured marriages depicted throughout the cinema of Ingmar Bergman.
Haigh supervised this new 2K digital transfer from Criterion, presented in 1.85:1 with 5.1 surround DTS-HD audio. Compared to the title’s initial bare bones Blu-ray release, this is a much improved presentation. Haigh, along with producer Tristan Goligher provide an audio commentary track and several bonus features are also included.
The Making of 45 Years:
The Criterion Collection produced this thirty-six minute 2016 documentary featuring interviews from cast and crew, including director Andrew Haigh, producer Tristan Goligher, editor Jonathan Alberts, DP Lol Crawley, and stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay.
David Constantine Interview:
Author and poet David Constantine appears for this thirteen minute 2016 interview with Criterion, discussing his surprise at learning hi short story “In Another Country” had been optioned for a film adaptation. The writer weighs in on changes Andrew Haigh made and his thoughts on the final product.
Playing like the chilly counter to romantic melodrama Brief Encounter, Haigh’s 45 Years is a sharply observed portrait of how time is mistakenly honored or acknowledged as proof of the foundation between two people.
Film Review ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆