The story of 45 Years is not as simple as the discovery of infidelity decades after marriage. The idyllic routine of Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay)’s life spent in their cosy country house in England receives a jolt when a letter arrives at their breakfast table. There’s a week to go for their 45th anniversary celebrations with close friends. While Kate is in the mood for a trip down memory lane, reminiscing about the song they danced to on their wedding day, Geoff looks visibly disturbed and absent. The reason clearly is the letter and he is not even trying to hide it. It’s in German and he says he has forgotten the verbs and barely remembers the nouns, but he has got the message. His former lover Katya’s body has been found. But that’s not what it all is. She has been found dead exactly the way she looked and dressed when she died 23-years-old, her body preserved by the quick freezing crevasses of Swiss mountains.
Based on an English short story In Another Country , this is a bizarre tragedy that has meanings at various levels: it’s one thing for a former lover dying a natural death or even in an accident. But it’s another to learn that she looks exactly the way she did when he last saw her. It makes Geoff yearn for his more adventurous, younger days and the woman, as is slowly revealed, he was obsessed with.
At the same time, the incident ties up the micro with the macro, past and present — glaciers melting due to climate change reveal a devastating domestic secret of an elderly, childless couple in Norwich. The ‘ice-breaking’ metaphor could also be seen as the couple opening up to each other – “We both went through an unpleasant phase in the same year and we never spoke to each other about it,” Kate tells Geoff with astonishing empathy, as she reaches out to her husband as a friend keeping her uxorial emotions aside.
There is a stunning sequence of bedtime conversation when the camera focuses on Kate’s face, making Geoff a blurry background when he makes an upsetting revelation about his relationship with Katya. And it keeps happening through the film. 45 Years is really about Kate and how she takes it all. Initially, she tries to be casual about it although something in it has unnerved her. “I can hardly be cross about something that happened before we even existed...” she says. Rampling, who won an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, is exceptional as she takes us through Kate’s range of emotions as it dawns upon her that she may not be the one, true love of her husband’s life. Watch her in the scene where she rattles off names of songs for the anniversary playlist when the event planner rings her home after she has made an unsettling discovery. Courtenay’s achievement is how he makes us empathise with Geoff. Both Rampling and Courtenay won the Silver Bear Best Actor and Actress at the Berlin Film Festival.
Marriage thriller minus theatrics
The film takes us through the entire week, leading up to the anniversary celebrations: Monday, Tuesday and so on. But giving out more examples and plot-points will spoil the experience of watching 45 Years that unravels like a marriage thriller minus theatrics. The film, in its quiet and powerful way, not only shows us the fragility of marriage but also our inherent fear of the expose of its failings in front of society. In this case, the anniversary celebration, that has black comic dimensions, becomes a symbol for marriage’s constructed exterior manifestation. “45 years! That’s an odd number to celebrate an anniversary,” the event planner tells Kate before she tells him that it is a delayed celebration of their 40th anniversary that they couldn’t hold because of Geoff’s bypass surgery.
The film, in its quiet and powerful way, shows us the fragility of marriage
Director: Andrew Haigh
Written by: David Constantine, Andrew Haigh
Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James
Run time: 95 minutes