Here’s what I found myself thinking during Andrew Haigh‘s “45 Years“: hold still. Not addressed to the film, which is precisely calibrated, weighted, and measured and never falters, but because it seemed like if I moved, or even breathed too hard at times, I myself might break apart. In “45 Years” Haigh has given Charlotte Rampling the best role of her life, has given the Berlin International Film Festival its first unqualified success, and has given me my first great film of 2015. And he has done all that wrapped in a movie so simple, so elegant, and yet so devouringly empathetic that you might not notice its full magic until a few hours later. Or until the following morning when, on a bus ride through icy Berlin, you find yourself tearing up like a sap, just thinking about its minute, enormous final scene.
Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate Mercer (Rampling) have been married for 45 years, and are planning a party, as their 40th anniversary went uncelebrated due to an illness. The week of the party, though, a letter arrives from Switzerland, informing Geoff, who “remembers the nouns better than the verbs” in German, that a body discovered frozen in a glacier in the Swiss Alps has been identified as his long-dead girlfriend, Katya. The vague story of an old love of Geoff’s who had accidentally fallen to her death while they were holidaying together in 1962 is known to Kate — it happened before they met — but the effect of the letter on Geoff gradually changes her assessment of him, of their marriage, and of everything that she understands to be hers, in life and love.
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It’s an extraordinary concept, taken from a short story by David Constantine, that is almost screamingly metaphorical when reduced to a couple of lines’ summation, yet Haigh’s talent is such that he beds it deeply into an instantly believable milieu of middle-class, schoolteachery Englishness, of drizzled fields, compact cars, and sensible walks on the Norfolk Broads. And so instead of contrivance, it feels like one of those extraordinary things that happen in ordinary lives — the things that don’t necessarily make us special but that make us us.
Of course it’s really only the catalyst for the film, the gun introduced in the first act that goes off in the third — though to be more precise, it goes off immediately, it’s just not until the third act that we understand in whose heart the bullet has lodged. Haigh brings us there, step by step, with a sureness and a faith in the honesty of his story that is quietly stunning, and oddly, for such a tiny relationship drama, suspenseful. These are small personal mysteries not solved by elaborate lures or traps but by rummaging through junk in the attic and visiting the travel agent on the high street.
They are prosaic things, but they are enormous to Kate and so they are enormous to us. Aside from writer/director Haigh, whose lovely last film “Weekend” announced him instantly as a filmmaker of tremendous understanding, especially of the mechanics of loving relationships, the reason for this empathy is Rampling. Her performance, made increasingly the focus as the film goes on, is simply the best we have ever seen from the actress over her long, varied career. The film lives in every part of her, but especially in her remarkable eyes, lit sometimes with mischief and humor, sometimes realization, and sometimes with a piercing disappointment that shatters.
Kate’s journey is the film’s primary interest, and Haigh is unapologetic about favoring her point of view. Often, he frames her talking to Geoff where she is visible but he is obscured, by a bookcase, or a car seat, and very gently, not distractingly, we feel the filmmaker saying, wait, please, look here, look at her. Courtenay is excellent as well, though, where initially his performance seemed odd, again it becomes the oddness of the real. He is not smooth, he stumbles on his words, and seems vague at times. But that is right — this is a film about the slow pitiless tragedy of time, and what it does to our bodies (illustrated here in a frank, touching sex scene), but mostly to our sense of ourselves. How, despite the changes that have happened over the years, you can be in love with the idea of yourself at a different time of your life. And how you might unconsciously neglect the person with whom you’ve grown old even as you love them, because they have borne witness to (and maybe, your resentful brain suggests, even caused) those changes. When in fact, of course, it is time who is the bastard, and all of us, except bodies preserved in glacial ice, are subject to its cruelty.
That said, while Tom and Kate are old, this is no more a film for old people than “Weekend,” in delineating a gay romance, was a film exclusively for gay people. Both of these films are about relationships, and both are chimingly, exquisitely relevant to anyone who’s ever been in one. It’s a small, unremarkable moment when Geoff mentions that the reason the 40th anniversary party was cancelled was because of his bypass, but it feels curiously, perfectly appropriate. Because with Haigh as the infinitely compassionate surgeon, cutting us open and peeling back layers of time and memory until everything vital is exposed beneath his scalpel, that’s what “45 Years” is: open heart surgery. [A]