by Jordan Canahai
A small, understated drama concerning emotions subdued and uncomfortable truths ignored, the British domestic drama 45 Years is not your average screen romance, and will certainly disappoint viewers expecting one. Expanding on the contrived premise from the David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country,” 45 Years is a quietly devastating portrait of an aging couple whose long marriage is fractured by unexpected revelations from the past. The film’s opening scenes introduces us to Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling), as director Andrew Haigh skillfully establishes their daily routines and lets us inside their comfortable lives just a week before their 45th anniversary. All seems well until Geoff receives a letter informing him the frozen body of the woman he loved and was previously engaged to has been discovered, frozen and perfectly preserved in ice following her death in the Swiss alps over four decades ago, and whom Kate had no knowledge of. The arrival of this near-literal ghost from a previous life awakens old wounds and feelings in the couple, forcing Kate to re-examine their relationship as she learns more about the woman Geoff loved in secret before her, and the invisible traces she left throughout their home.
45 Years is the third feature from the remarkably mature 42-year old writer/director Haigh whose previous film, Weekend, was similarly observant in its exploration of young love between gay men in modern Britain. If Weekend recalled David Lean’s Brief Encounter in its portrayal of a deep but fleeting love that develops in a short timespace, the great romantic drama of Europe’s post-war cinema 45 Years most closely resembles is Robert Rosellini’s Journey to Italy. Both films detail the dissolution of a marriage with a haunting, almost-dreamlike intensity, and ask the difficult question: How much can two lovers can really know about the other’s individual inner world? Veteran thespians Courtenay and Rampling in particular provide masterful performances, able to convey a decade-spanning, lived-in relationship full of shared experiences with the most specific of gestures in the film’s early scenes. In this way they reminded me of the married couple Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman so fully realized in Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage.
Like Todd Haynes Carol and Christan Petzold’s Phoenix, 45 Years is a focused drama that draws its power from how acutely it observes human behavior and the psychology of its characters. That all three were also so smartly and artfully directed in a manner which recalls the best European films of an era passed also unites them. I have some some reservations with 45 Years, it’s arguably an overly dour experience, and occasionally one might suspect Haigh’s screenplay is opaque to a fault. As much as I admire 45 Years, I don’t feel much desire to revisit the film anytime in the near future. Still, given how thoughtful films of this ilk seem to be increasingly rare in these days, 45 Years stands as a rich and rewarding look at the dark uncertainties that can exist in even the most seemingly enduring of marriages.
Watch the trailer for 45 Years
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