Before he created the HBO show "Looking," writer-director Andrew Haigh showed a refined talent for capturing the nuances of a young relationship with his tender gay romance "Weekend." Following that up in between the first two seasons of "Looking," Haigh furthers his unique ability to explore the deeper meanings beneath gentle exchanges with much older, more melancholic characters in "45 Years."
Anchored by a sensational Charlotte Rampling as its lead, the movie combines Haigh's perceptive style with shades of Mike Leigh's "Another Year" to create a quietly moving and deceptively tragic look at aging romance haunted by past mysteries.
Based on a short story by David Constantine, "45 Years" revolves around a single metaphorically-charged hook and runs with it. The movie stars Rampling as Kate, a woman who lives in the British countryside with her longtime husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and has plans for them to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. In the opening minutes, Geoff receives a note detailing the discovery of Katya, an old girlfriend who died after a fatal fall in the Swiss Alps 50 years earlier. The symbolic implications of her frozen state, much as she has remained in Geoff's mind for half a century, immediately take hold — but the full nature of their ramifications, steeped in a history about which Kate knows very little, linger in the air with a chilly uncertainty.
Haigh's script largely focuses the couple as they wander through their isolated home in unwieldy attempts to communicate their feelings while unable to directly confront them. Courtenay's spacey expression speaks volumes about the gaps in their ability to confront the situation at hand: Childless and grappling with their stationary lives in the midst of old age, their marriage has been hobbled by a catastrophe that predates its existence.
Cinematographer Lol Crawley brings the same eye for expressionistic landscapes that made his work the best part of "Hyde Park on the Hudson" to evoke the sense of alienation afflicting the couple here. The setting provides a key access point their sense of dislocation. When they occasionally venture into town, they're alone in their predicament. That sense of intimacy with tumultuous interior lives, which was so crucial to the success of "Weekend," takes on a pronounced quality in "45 Years" thanks to Rampling's powerfully involving turn.
While Haigh's light narrative touch — steeped in implicative exchanges and lengthy pauses — occasionally
lends the air of a minor work, Rampling carries it another level. She's never achieved so much with so little: Discussing her past with her husband and speculating on his romance that preceded her, Kate's subtle expressions suggest an ever-changing set of speculations and imprecise emotions. The movie hovers in her haunted, ambiguous state.
At the same time, "45 Years" manages to probe the liveliness that once enriched the couple's lives. Haigh brings us into their world with a fluid structure with a borderline real-time quality. Having once again discussed their frustrations over dinner and several glasses of wine, they venture to the living room for an adorably awkward dance party, followed by fumbling bedroom antics. This and other sparks of warmth hint at the bond that has kept them together on the verge of their landmark celebration — even as it hovers on the brink of collapse.
"As we get older, we stop making choices," Geoff says at one point, in a misguided attempt to argue that he's made the right one by sticking with wife of many years. But the double-meaning of that assertion percolates throughout this profoundly involving drama. As the anniversary party unfolds in a crowded sequence that defines the movie's devastating final act, so much has been left unsaid — and Haigh deepens the suspense of the possibility that they may never address any of it. "I'd like to tell you everything I'm thinking and everything I know, but I can't," says Kate, and she means it. But her face tells a different story.
"45 Years" premiered this week at the Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.