What goes into making a marriage last? “Who the fuck knows” seems to be the astute answer provided by 45 Years, a sublimely acted, ruefully funny and quietly devastating take on the topic from the gifted British writer-director Andrew Haigh (Greek Pete, Weekend). Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) and his wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling) are a childless couple enjoying their retirement in the Norfolk countryside and planning a party for their 45th anniversary.
Then the bomb drops. Geoff receives word that that the body of Katia, the German girlfriend of his youth, has been found perfectly preserved in a Swiss glacier where she went missing a half-century ago while they were on a hiking trip. Suddenly, the scenes of puttering, hard-won contentment that make up Geoff and Kate’s marriage and still-active sex life are jolted into an unwelcome reassessment. Geoff starts smoking again and thinks of returning to Switzerland. And Kate, forced to compete with an idealized dead girl, finds jealousy nagging. She digs around trying to find out about this mystery girl and how and why Geoff transferred his feelings from Katia to her. Everyone struggles to maintain a very British reserve — unsuccessfully.
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Based on David Constantine’s 2005 short story In Another Country, 45 Years moves inexorably inside the heads of these two people just as they are forced to wear a public mask that says happy together. Good luck with that. 45 Years casts a hell of a spell. And Courtenay and Rampling reward the film with performances of uncommon subtlety and feeling. Courtenay, 78, brings memories of his robust youth in such 1960’s films as The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Billy Liar and Dr. Zhivago. And here, revealing the concessions Geoff must make to age and its ills, Courtenay uncovers one man’s secret heart.
Still, Rampling, 68, is the film’s crowning glory. Her past roles are indelible, from the femme fatales she played in Georgy Girl, The Night Porter, Stardust Memories and The Verdict to her later triumphs in the French films Under the Sand and Swimming Pool. In 45 Years, Rampling shows us everything a true actress can do without a hint of excess or a single wasted motion. Near the end, the camera lingers on a shattered Kate as she stands alone in a crowd surrounded by friends and festive music. Haigh lets us read the story of the film on her face. Rampling crowds a lifetime of experience into this one close-up. The effect is killer. So is 45 Years, a mesmerizer that will creep into your dreams whether you let it or not.