By Stephen Mayne @finalreel
So often in 45 Years a crescendo beckons, and just as often Andrew Haigh steps nimbly away. His third feature, a superb achievement, is far too accomplished a creation to sully the relationship at the heart of proceedings with something as crass as a blunt emotional punchline. This is an altogether more complex and rewarding experience, one that asks a hell of a lot of its two leads, and receives even more in return.
The first question Haigh has to grapple with is whether glamour can be removed from the glamourous. If you need proof it can, look no further than Charlotte Rampling, fully subsumed into the role of Kate, a retired teacher living in a cosy country house in Norfolk with husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay). She always feels like she’s exactly where she should be, whether it’s supping wine at the dinner table, walking the broads or wandering the local shopping street. Courtenay on the other hand comes ready made for a role in which his bleary, shambling approach, punctuated by moments of spiky rage and haunted sadness, is a convincing counterpoint to Kate’s early composure.
The 45 years of the title denotes the length of their marriage, a landmark they intend to celebrate with a big party despite their shared dislike of spectacle. There’s an intrinsic understanding between Kate and Geoff in the early scenes giving life to the idea that these two fictional creations of Haigh’s have really been through nearly half a century together. Disarmingly nuanced dialogue coupled with Rampling and Courtenay’s ability to find the relationship in the smallest of gestures makes them as real as any characters I’ve seen in a while.
There’s more at stake than just the convincing portrayal of a life spent together though. Early on, Geoff receives the news that the body of a former girlfriend, lost in a hiking accident a lifetime ago, has finally surfaced in the ice of Switzerland. This distant but traumatic event brings to the surface a torrent of emotions that gradually threaten to overwhelm foundations that once appeared so secure.
Haigh avoids sudden lurches. No cheap points are scored here. The discord grows like an itch stubbornly out of reach. At first, shock overcomes Geoff, and Kate does what she can to soften the blow. Home cooking, nights in front of the TV, and coffee with friends, in short a return to the warm routine they’ve wrapped their lives in, proves ineffective. The forgotten loss opens wounds Geoff has hidden and Kate never knew existed. His inability to let it go starts to drag her down as the truth about their beginnings becomes apparent.
Nothing is hurried, and no one’s in a rush, yet knockout scenes pop up with increasing frequency as the film wears on. Breaking one of the last taboos in cinema, Haigh includes a sex scene between the elderly couple that while not visually graphic, is convincingly real. That’s only a taster as blows land harder and harder. When Kate sits alone in the attic working through a secret photo carousel, it doesn’t feel like any more emotion could possibly be squeezed from this extraordinary film. Then the wedding party ups the ante even more, ending with a shot of devastating ambiguity. This is not a film to take solace in, laying bare the fragile foundations all relationships are really built on.
If Haigh has come spectacularly good on his early promise, he’s does so on the back of two veterans giving as good as they ever have. They both walked away with acting honours at the Berlin Film Festival in February, and deserve to sweep the board come awards season. Courtenay builds Geoff inside a frazzled shell, a man shaken out of settled old age. His vacant stare and irritable outbursts betray inner turmoil, while attempts to make amends late in the day are painfully inadequate, the actions of a man who’s seen the barn door swing open and not yet realised the horse has bolted. Rampling might be even better. She allows concern to flicker uncertainly across her face in early exchanges, turning it gently into unavoidable sadness. The fact that Geoff has done little wrong makes it worse for her. She shows Kate as a woman watching the past 45 years slip like sand through her fingers. A final penetrating shot of her face demonstrates that while blame and anger is not appropriate, certain facts simply can’t be unlearned.
Rarely has a relationship been built so effectively, examined so thoroughly, and then undermined so methodically. Haigh, Rampling and Courtenay stir up a deluge of emotions that won’t fade for some time. This is not just a great British film, it’s a great film.
45 Years is out in cinemas and On Demand tomorrow, Friday 28th August.