One regards long-married couples with a sense of consolatory awe, as a source of comfort and stability in our otherwise anxious and protean lives. “They’ve got it figured out,” we tell ourselves as we shuttle from one life disaster to the next, hopelessly alone. “Maybe someday I’ll find my soulmate, too.” What this line of thinking obscures is that even the longest-lived relationships are composed of two individuals, two human beings that continue to think their own thoughts, keep their own secrets, and doubt, doubt, doubt. Writer-director Andrew Haigh understands that a marriage may bind two people together, but it does not merge them. And marriage does not erase the time before it existed.
In trying to recapture their moments together, a couple may discover how far apart they really are. Beneath the perpetual gray of the Norfolk sky, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are planning their 45th wedding anniversary—well, Kate more than Geoff, it seems. Geoff is lost in his memories. He has learned that the body of his old girlfriend, who died tragically while the two were on vacation in the Swiss Alps, has just been found, frozen in a glacier. The discovery brings to the surface some deeply submerged secrets, which have been percolating for 45 years.
There are further revelations, including one big one (perhaps too big; its disclosure forces us to view this multifaceted relationship through one particular lens), and yet there are no explosive quarrels, no tearful confessions. Rather, in unassuming yet rigorously composed scenes of dialogue, a portrait of a fundamentally imperfect, perhaps even fatally flawed, marriage emerges. “45 Years” at times plays like a geriatric version of “Before Midnight,” but the differences between the two films are more illuminating than their similarities. Where “Before Midnight” sought to achieve a perfect balance between its two leads, providing them equal weight in shots, editing, and dialogue, “45 Years” is very much Kate’s story. Our eye is constantly being directed toward Rampling’s face, which comes to dominate the film, her tough yet vulnerable visage rendering a catalog of emotions—disappointment, anger, bewilderment, joy, pity, doubt—the accredited contradictions of four and a half decades of marriage to a man who has never fully committed himself to her.
Wearing large glasses and several days worth of beard scruff, Courtenay, on the other hand, seems almost to be wearing a mask. In Haigh’s precisely mounted shots, he is often obstructed, out of focus, or out of frame. Even when Courtenay is delivering a speech at the couple’s anniversary party—a moment that, in a different film, might serve as a climactic tearful reconciliation—he is sidelined by Rampling. Rather than closing in on Courtenay, Haigh keeps both actors in shot, allowing us to study Rampling’s face as Courtenay rambles his way through an emotional yet self-pitying speech. Her expression is unmoved. In the next shot, the film’s last, Rampling and Courtenay dance to The Platters’ “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and, as Courtenay dances around foolishly, Haigh once again trains in on Rampling’s face, on which a vicious battle of love and regret is being waged. And here the film ends, on a small moment, a shattering moment, a moment in which Geoff has ceased to exist, and Kate stands there, completely alone at her own 45th wedding anniversary. The effect is heartbreaking.