With marriage you never get over the hump. Whether you’ve been together 5 years or 45, marriage always requires work and bad choices can have devestating effects. That’s just one thing I took away from Andrew Haigh’s subtly devastating “45 Years”.
The British drama, based on a David Constantine short story, spans a period of six days. Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are days away from celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary. Everything points to them being a happy couple but that is brought into question after Geoff receives a letter linked to something very personal from his past. It would be a disservice to give away anything about the letter. I knew nothing of it going in and my experience was richer for it.
I will say the effects of the letter slowly fester and their relationship struggles under the burden of it. Haigh (serving both as writer and director) is smart in his handling of things. He meticulously allows things to play out and patiently feeds us bits of revelation. Most importantly he never feels the need to be manipulative or the slightest bit conventional. Instead the stress is on developing a truly authentic relationship free of any traditional Hollywood prodding or sentimental fluff.
A key reason he accomplishes this is because he shows a heavy dependence on his two leads. Rampling and Courtenay are a joy to watch. They are so perfectly in tune with the naturalistic flow of the script and there is never a question about their characters or their relationship. Like most couples they have their routines – walking the dog, listening to 60s music, book reading. But eventually the letter’s influence can be seen even in their daily rounds.
Rampling handles her character with a low-key steadiness. She conveys a hope and optimism that slowly becomes harder for her character to maintain. Every reaction and response she gives is rooted in unquestionable truth and the performance becomes more engrossing the further along we go. Rampling has so many potent moments where she reveals her character through her keen expressiveness.
Courtenay gives us a much different character. The 79 year-old actor is playful and open early on but his performance shifts as the week progresses. More and more Geoff shuts himself off. He constantly seems distant, distracted, and is easily agitated. But Courtenay doesn’t give us a villain. He shows a sincere complexity within his character. He is a sweet-hearted man who genuinely doesn’t know how to handle his emotions.
Lingering in the background is a weekend party their friends have put together to honor their 45 years of marriage. In light of the letter, we begin to wonder how the party will go? Will Kate and Geoff even make it there? Each day as the party gets closer those questions have more meaning. We the audience watch and hope, but we don’t know how things will play out. That is what makes this quietly devastating.
Andrew Haigh deserves a lot of credit. At first it may seem his film isn’t doing much other than allowing good performers room to act. But slowly he unveils his true vision and meaning. Ultimately he gives us a fresh, authentic portrait of marriage while revealing the importance of honesty and openness. He doesn’t make lofty statements or give us clear-eyed answers. He makes subtle points, asks questions, then allows us to wrestle with them. It is a very smart and effective approach.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS