Reviewer: Larry Oliver
Director: Andrew Haigh
Stars: Charlotte Rampling, Dolly Wells, Tom Courtenay
Released:26th August 2015 (UK)
45 Years is a British drama that rings true about a certain kind of
marriage. It depicts a retired childless couple, Kate and Geoff Mercer, played to perfection by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, who exchange entirely convincing looks of affection. Kate is a former schoolteacher who had nursed her husband, once a plant supervisor, back to health after his heart bypass. The operation prevented them from celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary. To make amends, Kate has arranged a 45th anniversary party. But Geoff receives a letter that forces him to think about his life before their marriage. Over the course of six days, Kate finds herself re-evaluating their marriage.
For his follow up to Weekend, writer-director Andrew Haigh has adapted a short story by David Constantine, ‘In Another Country’. He focuses his camera almost entirely on Kate. The establishing shot, showing Kate walking her dog in the far distance, is quite brilliantly composed because it suggests a character in whom we would take not a passing interest – they are very far away from us, unlikely to enter into our world. Yet the story of Kate and George is a universal one.
For many of us men – and I write as a film reviewer married for almost 21 years – marriage begins with elation and excitement. We finally bagged a life partner. Except once we are married, we think about trading up. This inevitably leads to wobbles in the first five years or so until some of us – I call them the lucky ones – come to the conclusion that you really can’t make a marriage better than the one you’ve got. By then, you’ve (probably) hurt your partner and if they stay with you, they do so trying to make the best of your idiocy. The romance has utterly gone and you’ve left with a tolerable friendship, in which the mistakes of the past are dragged out at regular intervals. Serves you right!
In Kate and Geoff’s case, we know that hasn’t happened – hence the exchanged looks of affection. Why? Because Geoff felt a keen loss before his life with Kate ever started. We sense that he is the kind of husband who wouldn’t think of trading up; who, as he might say, ‘is lucky to have her [Kate]’. His subsequent fidelity depends entirely on that sense of loss – that feeling of not being able have what he most desired. The choices that he made depend on honouring another.
Much of the drama is filmed in master shots, with the camera staying on Kate as we constantly read her responses. You may be reminded of the shooting style of Woody Allen, who moves the camera sparingly. Unlike Allen, Haigh makes a greater use of shot-reverse-shot, in order to prevent Geoff from seeming inscrutable. This isn’t a film about Kate the victim but the study
of two people dealing with the feelings produced by the past.
The action can be mundane: Geoff struggling to repair the lavatory or reading Kirkegaard – according to Kate, he never got past the second chapter. Haigh shows how routine is broken. Geoff has new energy – and he doesn’t have much time for his work friends, one of whom has purchased a ukulele.
If it was just about marriage, 45 Years would be a four star film at most. It is elevated by the first pairing in a film of two icons of 1960s British cinema, Courtenay, the star of Billy Liar and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Rampling, co-star of Georgy Girl. We cannot but think how far British cinema has come, or rather hasn’t. The film harks back to youth – we see Kate and Geoff share a dance in the front room. But Haigh
also notes how past idealism no longer has a place in the modern day. The most militant of Geoff’s work colleagues, Len – ‘we called him Len-in’ – now has a grandson who is a banker. Geoff spits out this observation partly in disgust but also (we sense) in resignation: why would young people not want to work in an industry with the biggest financial rewards? When Geoff does
descend into a rant, it is about climate change, but for reasons not connected to fatalism about the planet.
The expert acting and direction pay off in a final scene in which we understand entirely why people behave the way they do – after all, Billy Liar never got on that train to London – and why things can never be the same. 45 Years is that rare thing – not just an instant classic of British cinema but a classic film full stop.