“They found her body…I know I told you about my Katia.” That little word “my” effectively seals the fate of the marriage of Kate and Geoff Mercer in Andrew Haigh’s film “45 Years.”
One week before their 45th wedding anniversary, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) receives a letter informing him that the body of his girlfriend from 50 years earlier has been found, frozen in a glacier in Switzerland after being lost in a hiking accident. Kate (Charlotte Rampling) knows her husband all too well and can sense how this news has instantly made him peculiar and nostalgic.
“45 Years” dredges up the past to show how even a loving, married couple that isn’t complacent, even after so long, can still be unsettled. It’s an endearing, highly realistic story complete with top-notch veteran performances and the same intimate pillow talk and sophisticated human dynamics found in Haigh’s last film “Weekend” (he’s also the director of the short-lived HBO drama “Looking”).
“She’d look like she did in 1962, and I look like this,” Geoff says. The thought alone is enough to signal all the angles “45 Years” can take and how conflicted he must feel. Kate is supportive but grows increasingly irritable at his subtle hints that he’s still longing for her, be it checking out a book on climate change or a late night trip to the attic to find an old picture. When Geoff shares with Kate his memory of the day of her disappearance, Haigh’s screenplay (adapted from a short story called “In Another Country” by David Constantine) becomes elegant and achingly heart wrenching. Geoff describes hearing her scream as an “outpouring of air from her lungs, a low guttural sound not like her voice.”
It’s beautiful, and Courtenay plays Geoff as lightly absent minded at times. He seems to piece his sentences together carefully as he goes along, not quite muttering but not quite in the moment. He’s lost in his memory for Katia, and Kate, who Rampling plays with far more calm authority and dignity, is desperate to bring him back to their present.
Easily Rampling’s finest moment comes when, tucked away in their attic, she looks at old slides of her husband’s former love. As she clicks through, the light flickering on her face, Rampling keeps her composure and hunched posture but reveals her eyes just barely drooping in crestfallen defeat. Her performance hits tragically emotional and personal notes, but is never broad and never pitiful. “45 Years” does away with melodrama fore a more modest, even light story that doesn’t let the burden of their marital conflict weigh their chemistry or the film itself down.
Haigh keeps his distance, setting “45 Years” in Britain’s quiet, pastoral countryside and, particularly in the film’s contemplative final shot, at length to show that what lies ahead for this couple is still uncertain. “Funny how you forget the things in life that make you happy,” Kate says in passing. That’s “45 Years” in a nutshell, in which we know what makes this couple happy, loving and enduring, but we’re unsure if at this age they’ll still remember.
3 ½ stars