- Director – Andrew Haigh
- Starring – Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtney
- Writer – David Constantine (short story ‘In Another Country’) and Andrew Haigh (adaption)
- Year – 2015
- Running Time – 95 mins
We all have shoeboxes stuffed away in the attic or tucked into the back of a draw which contain the memories of relationships gone by; letters, trinkets, ticket stubs and such like. These shoeboxes of life, as the Bare Naked Ladies called them, are important as although the relationships may have ended this doesn’t invalidate the experiences shared or the time spent together. Previous relationships are part of our DNA and have played a key role in leading us to where we are today. However while we shouldn’t forget or ignore them, we would do well to be mindful that they can, at times, be confronting to others and potentially damaging to our own status quo.
Most relationships probably have a couple of ghosts, the spectre of partners past if you will, which when raised, tug at our natural feelings of insecurity and jealously. Nobody likes to think their partner had feelings for someone else, but this is inevitable and a natural part of evolution, though thankfully with a little ego stroking, it is also something we are normally able to come to terms with.
This theory is tested to the limits in 45 Years, when days before Geoff (Tom Courtney) and Kate Mercer’s (Charlotte Rampling) 45th wedding anniversary a letter lands on the mat, informing Geoff that the body of Katya, a 1960s sweetheart who died in a mountain accident almost half a century before, has been discovered. Out of this envelope contrasting emotions tumble, which threaten the foundations that have been carefully laid over the previous four and a half decades.
It is worth stating right at the beginning that this is no cup of tea British drama and while the stiff upper lip may be on display to those in the village, the emotions within the couple’s cottage, are raw, unrelenting and above all else, traumatic.
Relationships develop their own rhythms and after half a century of courtship, Geoff and Kate have their own established and comfortable daily routines. As the film opens we see Kate at the start of one these, walking her dog in the crisp winter air and deep into party planning preparations for their upcoming anniversary. On return, this routine is suddenly shattered by the arrival of the letter and the growing realisation of the potential impact the contents may bring.
Geoff learns the news at the same time as Kate, and their initial reactions feel complexly natural. Geoff is clearly in shock and begins to drift into memories. Kate meanwhile, tries to strike that difficult balance between support and practicality, while at the same time trying to protect her marriage from an unseen force that is almost unchallengeable.
As the days creep by, the pair seem to retreat to their own corners. Questions are bravely raised and then, perhaps unwisely, answered with a level of brutal honesty. A search for clarity in the present leads to more questions of the past, the answers of which after 45 years of marriage, must simply be terrifying.
Rampling and Courtney bring a truly lived in feeling to the couple and deliver nothing less than you would expect from this pairing of British acting royalty, which is simply masterful performances, from Rampling in particular. The range they bring is staggering and in almost every scene you see the complexities of their respective emotional traumas. The tender touches, the type that only intertwined history can bring, pull you into the pair, though these are almost violently juxtaposed by the hurt and pain which is clearly visible just below the surface.
Watching their relationship in danger of unfurling is a difficult watch, and while the film is predominantly told through Kate’s eyes, it is impossible to not feel empathy for them both, so much so that your emotional support swings wildly between the two. You feel deeply for them individually, often within the same scene, but also for their relationship as a whole, which is in deep emotional jeopardy through no real fault of either individual. More simply it is being held hostage to the frailty of human emotions and questions of fate.
Haigh’s choice of framing the drama through the days leading up to the anniversary party is an effective tool, which alongside the brief running time combine uncomfortably well to deliver a constant reminder of how quickly something once so solid, can seemingly spiral out of control. Through this framing device you can clearly see the rapid deteriorating effect the news is having on the entire fabric of their relationship and the increasing levels of doubt and denial that are quickly and unrelentingly setting in.
Time is not a new concept for Haigh, who has explored similar themes in previous films. In Greek Pete he documented a year in the life of a London rent boy and in Weekend showed how close two strangers can become after only knowing each other for two or three days. Here, Haigh takes us to the other extreme and examines whether almost half a century of history provides a stronger base for a relationship to survive a seismic shift, or conversely does it make it more fragile?
The result is a powerful and confronting character drama, which cuts to the heart of what it takes to build a marriage of such standing, but also how quickly it could be potentially undone. An emotionally troubling must see.
Review by Will Malone
If you liked this, then try Light Between Oceans.