45 Years Dir. Andrew Haigh

[Sundance Selects; 2015]

Others: Weekend, Looking

An aging couple lives together, coexisting peacefully — perhaps even contentedly. When we meet them, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling) have been wedded 45 years minus one week, and they plan to spend that week organizing a large-scale anniversary party for their friends. Kate, we sense, is dominant in the relationship. She’s direct, witty, and organized, and sure of herself and her marriage. When the two sexagenarians drive somewhere, she takes the wheel and plays classical music. For Kate, things seem to be settled.

For Geoff, though, things are not, though he’s much quicker to insist that they are. Geoff’s mind and body aren’t what they used to be, and he knows it; he can hardly remember how to behave when he makes love, and “nouns are easier than verbs.” He fixates on his past as a leftist radical, and regards age’s flattening of idealism with horror — on a good day, he’ll admonish a former communist friend behind his back for spending time with his banker grandson; on a less forgiving day, he’ll call Margaret Thatcher apologists fascists. Geoff doesn’t mention himself much in these moments, but it’s clear he’s disturbed to have his wild, adventuring days behind him, and so it is entirely the wrong timing when Geoff receives a letter informing him that the body of his ex-girlfriend Katya has been found in Switzerland, perfectly preserved, after her disappearance 50 years prior.

Writer and director Andrew Haigh handles the ensuing week-long disintegration through a series of vignettes that are executed with powerful, limited camera setups and subtly escalating subtext between the pair, who are fast realizing that for all these years, Geoff has thought of his wife as a second-best substitute for her more adventurous predecessor. He denies it, tries to hide it, but even the mildest of probing and investigation by Kate makes the truth clear and incontrovertible.

Haigh frequently allows entire scenes to play out in one or two shots, connecting his formal decisions to his subjects through gestures as simple as a panning motion to follow his actors’ movements, or a slow zoom-in on a tableau. His approach is not “restrained,” but rather measured, and both Rampling and Courtenay reward his camera’s patience, as disturbing epiphanies drag across their faces with shocking, often wordless detail. We mostly follow Kate as she first tries to pull an emotional confession out of her husband, and then hunts for evidence of his unspoken nuptial crime, a half-century of dissatisfaction.

As 45 Years moves along, it becomes clear that for all the lip service he pays his leftism and love for wild adventures, Geoff is terrified of change — just as frozen in a bygone time as Katya — and that Kate is slipping into the ice with him. Haigh’s approach does not succeed through documentary observance, but through careful arrangement, through the immaculately placed Freudian slip (“I like not knowing the time,” says Geoff as he explains his distaste for watches) and a simple, perceptive interplay between the frame and the actors within. His frames are neither tight nor loose, their color palettes and depth are as carefully arranged as they are unassuming. Few films from 2015 can not only boast a distinctive purpose behind each and every shot, but also lay a claim to a mechanical perfection that bolsters such rawly bared feelings that have been left to fester so long.

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