While it couldn’t be called a thriller, Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years had me on the edge of my seat like no other film this year. Spare, focused, precise, it charts the almost imperceptibly subtle shifts within what would seem to be a stable and happy marriage. As written by Haigh, and as interpreted by veteran British actors Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, those shifts come to feel as agonizingly tense as a set piece by Hitchcock. The end credits reveal that it’s based on a story by David Constantine; even before I knew that I felt that the film resembled a piece of great short fiction, something by Alice Munro, perhaps, in which the weight of an entire life comes to rest on a single week, day, moment.
45 Years unfolds over the seven days leading up to the 45th wedding anniversary of its lead characters, Geoff and Kate Mercer, a retired English couple in late middle age who share a farmhouse in the Norwich countryside. In the opening scene of the film, Geoff learns that the body of a former girlfriend, Katya, who died during a hiking accident in Switzerland long ago, has recently been unearthed. Although we’re led to believe that Kate has always known about Katya—the woman who preceded her in Geoff’s life—she is unnerved to see the profound effect that the news of Katya’s body’s discovery has on him. He is moved to dig up old photos and journals from their time together; he begins smoking nervously. (Soon Kate does, too.) Outwardly, nothing about Kate and Geoff’s marriage has changed, and yet she is made to wonder whether Geoff sees her as a second-rate replacement for the woman he lost as a young man.
One of the many brilliant things about the film is the sensitivity with which it portrays the doubts and uncertainties that can lurk beneath even the happiest and most secure of relationships. There are no transgressions, betrayals, or villains here. The power of 45 Years lies in its refusal to assign blame or even locate a precise cause for the sense of anxiety that begins to creep into Kate and Geoff’s home. Katya’s ghost-like presence comes to haunt the house in the days leading up to the anniversary party, but it becomes difficult for Kate and Geoff to know how to exorcise her, or even to decide what threat (if any) she represents. Ambiguous, overdetermined, unknowable, Katya becomes a blank screen on which Kate and Geoff project their feelings about the past, their lost youth, choices made, roads not taken. As they proceed to re-encounter familiar things now made strange by the memory of Katya, their responses shade from confusion and vague resentment to quiet contentment and back again.
Watching 45 Years I found myself hanging on every word of Andrew Haigh’s screenplay. Haigh, whose previous film was the beautiful and melancholy gay romance Weekend, is fast becoming one of the most adroit and incisive writer-directors of his generation, a social realist filmmaker deeply attuned to the most intimate nuances of human relationships. Courtenay and Rampling, whose careers began in the British New Wave films of the 1960s, have perhaps never been better than they are here. The quietness of their performances is deceptive; they capture the lived-in quality of a longtime marriage without seeming to do anything at all. Rampling in particular is spellbinding. The reserves of emotion contained within those hooded eyes and that knife's-blade of a mouth feel as vast and unknowable as ever. As the final shot of the film lands like a sock to the gut we’re left feeling as unmoored as she is. I've run that ending, which one realizes has been set up from the very beginning, over and over again in my head so many times I feel like it has made me crazy. If that isn't the sign of a great film, I don't know what is.