AFI FEST 2015: 45 Years, by Scott Nye
People keep secrets from one another. You can know someone for decades – say, forty-five years, give or take – and still you won’t know everything. Some things are small, simple matters of differing perceptions which go unacknowledged and which generally don’t affect your day-to-day life together. Others become much larger. There’s a wealth of life experience that goes only partially explored. Maybe it’s difficult or painful to discuss, maybe it doesn’t seem relevant to the present; maybe you’ve just forgotten. Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years is an astounding exploration of the gulf that exists in such a relationship, and whether that can ever be mended.
Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are readying a celebration for their 45th anniversary, having seen their 40th go by while the latter was in the hospital. One of them is preparing a great deal more than the other. Men don’t immediately see the value of such affairs, Kate’s friend assures her, but once you get them there, they realize that all their fussing over small achievements were fleeting, but that this, their relationship, is “the real stuff.” Kate’s beginning to have doubts. Geoff has just found out that the body of a woman whom he loved, who died while they were hiking through Switzerland in their twenties, has been found perfectly preserved in ice. While he has aged considerably, and she has died, she still, theoretically – he’s in no condition to hike up there to find out – looks as she did the day he lost her.
In 95 minutes that covers the span of a week, Haigh (adapting a short story by David Constantine) movingly mines so much of what Kate and Geoff have gone through in their many years together. They share shorthands – little designations for casual acquaintances – and reference points, most of which are refreshingly not elaborated upon. We don’t need to know everything, we just need to understand what they mean to Kate and Geoff. Both falling more or less into the baby boomer generation, they’ve retained some of their liberal ideals (a story of Geoff calling a mutual friend a fascist for saying Thatcher wasn’t all bad is one of the film’s many solid comedic beats), but there’s a lingering sense Kate wanted a bit more of a typical domestic life than the one she ended up with. They never had children, and she’s noticing how much that simple decision has changed for them. They don’t have many photographs of themselves, for example.
Rampling has received a good deal of awards buzz since the film premiered, and with good reason. This is in some ways a modest story, but the emotions are anything but, and she crafts an acute portrait of someone struggling to keep a cap on the storm of emotions wrestling inside of her as Geoff becomes more and more distant, and more and more of their marriage is called into question. Most of her best moments involve no dialogue at all, simply trying to coax some sort of honest discussion out of her husband. Rampling’s face has a naturally calculating quality that suits her character well, allowing her to remain guarded by default, and making the small disappointments that do register all the more devastating.
It’s not that Geoff’s struggle isn’t sympathetic. He’s probably repressed a good deal of the trauma over the years, and isn’t emotionally prepared for how to deal with it suddenly pouring out. Courtenay is equally adept at communicating this, never looking down on his character but honestly portraying the pettiness most men fall into at one time or another, when it becomes impossible to see the good thing in front of you for the unknown thing you’ve convinced yourself would be perfect.
Without feeling overly decorative, Haigh routinely finds exquisite ways to frame the gulf growing between them, separating Kate and Geoff in posture, position (sitting vs. standing), doors, windows, and the like. Geoff has taken to smoking, which often puts him in a different physical space than Kate, but also a different emotional one – she phrases her objection as “I don’t want us to start smoking again.” “Us,” not just “you.” What once was a shared activity, perhaps even an early bond, is now his domain exclusively, and one that requires their distance.
This kind of subtlety goes a long way in building towards the anniversary party. Something of a looming threat, it’s the perfect culmination of everything that’s happened over the course of the film. Such parties require reflecting on the past and its relevance to the present and future. A few fond speeches, a trip or two down memory lane, then arm in arm to the dance floor. Hey baby, they’re playing our song, but who are we anymore?
AFI FEST 2015 Presented by Audi continues through November 12th. 45 Years will screen there tonight at 7:30pm, with a tribute to Rampling and Courtenay preceding it. The film will screen again on November 12th at 1:00pm, and will be released by IFC Films on December 23rd.