The latest masterpiece from Andrew Haigh, 45 Years, is a patiently told drama about a woman (Kate, played by Charlotte Rampling) who finds her marriage with Geoff (Tom Courtenay) in crisis. The body of his long-lost-love Katya, who was in the picture before Kate and Geoff ever met, has been found decades after she died in a horrific accident. Her sudden “return” brings back memories and regrets from Geoff’s youth, and all Kate can do is wonder where she’s stood all this time.
Just as the best comedies support jokes written around a funny story, this upper-tier drama is propelled by this genuinely tragic situation. Each scene contributes to and is weighed down by this unexpected revelation. Kate delicately interrogates further, to learn the nature and depth of his past romance, but listens on helplessly as Geoff describes the love, and life, that Kate never offered. Kate’s perception for each of Geoff’s mood swings or negative outbursts pivot from one-time occurrences to outward representations of his regret. Her desire to know and secure her place as Geoff’s real life is constantly in conflict with her sadness of finding out the truth of what happened so many years ago.
As with any Andrew Haigh work, there is meaning with every choice. I’m sure I’ll uncover more as I re-watch this, but a couple I noticed off the bat:
- Visual imbalance. The film is structured into days of the week, with title cards as formal dividers. As each day begins, the opening shots are of their home in the country, a suburban road, a forest glen. Each shot is mostly straight but slightly tilted, at a subtle diagonal angle (not Batman villains status). This choice reflects Kate and Geoff’s relationship, which is mostly strong particularly having lasted 4 1/2 decades – yet the Katya revelation throws things slightly off. We are not at ease, from a narrative level, and this visual cue contributes to that subconscious tension. (There is certainly a visual essay to be written on this!)
- Time. This element, both visual and aural, works twofold: first, as a more immediate, anxious device. Two times, Kate window-shops for watches as a gift Geoff; on her second visit, later in the week and deeper into her marital crisis, the ticking sound of watches becomes even more prominent and impossibly loud, as a looming, steady pulse heightening the anxiety of her situation. Second, time functions as a broader theme. The name of the movie is even 45 Years, and the central conflict is a matter of their relationship now as it was all those decades ago. In a bittersweet moment towards the end, when we aren’t sure where Geoff’s heart truly stands, he smiles and comments to Kate that “I never look at the time.”
As with Weekend and Looking, 45 Years‘s greatest asset is its authenticity. Over the course of several days, we play witness to this couple in all their highs and lows – sweet dances in the living room to painful interrogations late at night. The emotional moments take you suddenly and unexpectedly, just as they do in real life. There are no fourth-wall-breaking sensory forces at play, as the soundtrack all comes straight from the confines of the narrative.
In the tremendously satisfying and moving finale, the couple’s 45th wedding anniversary, their wedding song plays as they drift onto the dance floor. We break from the painful crisis at hand and pivot into a wonderful dream – them apart, away from the world around them. Smoke gets in your eyes.
45 Years is available now on Amazon.