Chicago International Film Festival 2015: 45 Years, by Aaron Pinkston
Like Andrew Haigh’s brilliant debut feature Weekend, 45 Years takes place primarily between one couple over a brief passage of time. Here, however, the couple has already spent a life together. The week before their 45th wedding anniversary, Geoff Mercer receives a letter with news about a friend he knew before meeting his future wife Kate. This random occurrence dramatically affects Geoff and his marriage, opening the past and its secrets. Leading up to their celebration, the couple address old memories and emotions that they have never opened to each other over their long years together. 45 Years is a small but impactful story about the ever-changing qualities of love.
Every relationship comes with a private history. Often, past experience can help build one’s character by learning from mistakes. It can, however, be a point of reference that leads to competition, a constant mirror between the present relationship and good memories. Though it is such an obvious part of every relationship, this dynamic is rarely explored in film – and when it is, it is usually an easy sway into an over-the-top psychosexual thriller. Haigh, as we would expect from his filmmaking and narrative style, uses a secret past to build tension, but organically moving into melancholy.
Charlotte Rampling stars as Kate in a performance that is certain to be remembered at the end of the year. It isn’t an easy role to play, with most of the film’s dramatic churning needing to happen internally, and she beautifully plays the damaged character. She builds throughout the film in an incredibly realistic way, starting with a supportive though inquisitive reaction when Geoff first tells her the bad news. As she begins to see more half-truths and wishy-washy temperament from her husband, she can’t help but dig a little further. The moment Kate comes across the film’s “big reveal” (it’s relative, given the film’s size and scope) is completely heartbreaking. Even more so is Rampling’s performance in the film’s final scenes at the anniversary celebration, where we see her wordless struggle bubble to a potential breaking point.
Across from Rampling, Tom Courtenay isn’t the emotional center of the film but his emotions are its driving force. Geoff is a little aloof, mostly internalized and awkward when forced to talk about his feelings. This is part character trait and part narrative design, as we shouldn’t know exactly where his mind is at while Kate has the same problem. He plays well off of Rampling in what is a pretty thankless role. Because of our perspective sided with Kate, Geoff becomes a de facto villain when he hasn’t necessarily done anything wrong – though that is a debate that the film leaves wonderfully open-ended.
Andrew Haigh seems poised to take the British indie drama torch from Mike Leigh. Though 45 Years doesn’t have the as sharp witted tongue of the best Leigh, it explores the full range of human relationships with great realism and grace. I wasn’t worried that Haigh couldn’t step outside of the gay narratives and themes he has primarily become known for (not that there’s anything wrong with that) because his work in Weekend and Looking has been so universal. It is nice to see it in action, though.
Chicago International Film Festival Showtimes:
Saturday, October 17, 3:30 pm
Tuesday, October 20, 6:15 pm