Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” follows a long-married couple over several days as their seemingly unbreakable relationship fractures, perhaps irreparably, after facts about a long-dead former lover come to light.
With character-focused, sensitive storytelling and sensational performances, it’s a subtly powerful, quietly affecting film about the rewards and risks of intimacy.
Haigh previously directed “Weekend,” about a one-night stand with deeper possibilities, and this time, he presents a flip-side scenario — a long-established union that may be crumbling — while again demonstrating a flair for intimately portraying meaningful connection.
Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay play Kate and Geoffrey, a financially solid, childless retired couple living in the English countryside. Kate is contained and social. Geoff reads Kierkegaard and grumbles about friends he finds pointless. Amid regular activities such as walking the dog and lunching with friends Lena (Geraldine James) and George (David Sibley), the two are planning their 45th-anniversary party.
A poison arrow arrives: A letter from Switzerland informs Geoff that the body of Katya, his pre-Kate girlfriend who died in a hiking accident in 1962, has been found. Soon, memories of Katya consume Geoff, who starts smoking again and searches for photos of Katya in the attic at night.
Kate becomes jealous, and these feelings intensify with the discovery that Geoff was more devoted to Katya than he has acknowledged. Generally levelheaded, Kate can’t cope with the knowledge that she wasn’t the primary love of Geoff’s life.
Haigh adapted the screenplay from a short story by David Constantine, and sometimes his fleshing out of the material feels like padding.
But as the turbulence increases, so does a tempest of intelligence and feeling. On a par with marriage-in-crisis dramas like “Le Weekend” and “Before Midnight,” the movie deeply involves viewers in a relationship at a possible breaking point, and in the decision of the woman who will determine its future.
Haigh pieces the characters’ 45-year history together by inserting bits of information in organically flowing dialogue. He paints a picture that doesn’t suffer from contrived flashbacks or narration.
His wide shots and close-ups prevent the two-hander from feeling like a filmed play.
And Rampling and Courtenay, equally matched, though she has the more substantial role, are devastating.
Often with no dialogue, Rampling, who has been nominated for an Oscar for the role, subtly registers a gold mine of emotion on her character’s severe but vulnerable face. Courtenay powerfully conveys Geoff’s frustration and disappointment, often with the mere tone of his voice. A bonus: These actors, each a shining component of the new British cinema of the 1960s, bring their own common history to the picture,
Pop tunes from 1960s on the radio, most bouncy songs about young love, sometimes comically conflict with the realities of old age, which Haigh presents with sensitivity.
As for whether there will be a marriage to celebrate come party time, let’s just say the final shot is bound to inspire post-screening discussion. This is a stirring film.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, David Sibley
Written and directed by: Andrew Haigh
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes
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