OLIVIA PERRETT continues our look at this year’s best films with ’45 Years’, the intense relationship drama starring Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay.
Based on a short story by David Constantine, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years observes Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) during preparations for their 45th wedding anniversary celebrations. From the opening scene their relationship is tested by the arrival of a shocking letter informing Geoff that the body of his former girlfriend, Katya – missing for over fifty years – has been found perfectly preserved in a glacier. Geoff becomes sullen and withdrawn, but it is Kate whose world is truly shaken by this letter, as she is forced to reconsider her perspective on her marriage and the relationship in which she has invested most of her life.
As bizarre as the concept may sound initially, this film is as far from farce as it is possible to be. 45 Years is a very true and honest portrayal of human relationships. We become acquainted with the everyday routines and habits of the characters in the film as we follow them on their everyday errands and tasks. We see how this simple narrative of pleasant mundanity, which could (but does not at all) run the risk of approaching tedium, is corrupted by the insidious tensions of their long marriage.
Charlotte Rampling is utterly compelling in the subtlety of her performance; watching her in this film, you feel as if you’ve known the character for years. Tom Courtenay’s performance is sound, but a good deal less impressive than Rampling’s. Courtenay can come across as a bit doddery at times, especially when matched against Rampling’s astonishingly youthful vigour. Courtenay is withdrawn and distant throughout much of the film and the frustration of the viewer in watching him reflects that of Kate, who is increasingly conscious of the widening chasm between herself and her husband.
In the context of the film, the unusual cause of Katya’s death is utterly tragic, and not just because of the fact of death itself. The perfect preservation of Katya’s youth and beauty in the glacier is just another twist of the knife in Kate’s heart. Katya is suspended in time, an eternal beauty not only in Geoff’s memory but also in her physical form; she represents uncorrupted youth and love, and becomes an impossible standard which Kate can never hope to fulfil.
Some have remarked that this film ends precisely at its best moment and I couldn’t agree more. The last scene unfolds at the party for which the characters have been preparing throughout the whole film, and thus we have reached the climax of dramatic tension. Rampling, who otherwise shows stunning control of emotion throughout the film, lets her devastation and grief for the loss of their marriage bubble to the surface just as the film abruptly ends, leaving the viewer shell-shocked.
Even as a young adult with not nearly enough life experience to be truly empathetic with the characters, I was touched by the profound poignancy of Haigh’s film. Much like the 2012 French-language film Amour which also explores the strains in the relationship of an old-aged couple, your individual experience of 45 Years will depend on your personal life experience and sympathies. This film thus begs repeat viewing; it is one that lives with you, and will change as you do.
But the feeling of fear that underpins this film – the fear of wasting one’s life; the fear of regret – is one which speaks to audience both young and old, and will leave you harrowed for a long time afterwards.
’45 Years’ was released in cinemas in August this year.