45 Years review: “an intimate portrait of a marriage in crisis”

Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are superb as a long-married couple whose lives are turned upside down by a ghost from the past

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★★★★★

What would you do if you discovered something about your partner that changed the way you looked at them? Would you allow it to destroy your relationship?

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These questions, among others, lie at the heart of 45 Years, an elegant, low-key drama that paints an intimate portrait of a marriage in crisis. It’s a film that highlights the fragile nature of relationships – showing how they can be tarnished beyond repair at any point – and it does so in a way that is deeply affecting. 

Set in the Norfolk countryside, it tells the story of Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay), a retired couple who are about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. One week before the big party, however, Geoff receives a letter about his previous girlfriend, Katya, who fell to her death while the two of them were hiking as youngsters. It transpires that the Swiss authorities have finally recovered her body, which has been perfectly preserved in an Alpine glacier for the last 50 years.

Geoff is thrown by this unexpected news, to the extent that Kate becomes concerned about his behaviour. At one point, she learns that he has been enquiring about making a trip to Switzerland. At another, she hears him rummaging around in the attic at night, looking for old photos. To begin with, Kate makes an effort to be supportive. But over the next few days she is gradually consumed by doubt and resentment, as a handful of heartbreaking revelations alter her perception of Geoff.

After reading this, you’d be forgiven for expecting a series of shouty, revelation-fuelled confrontations. However, 45 Years is not that kind of film. By contrast, it is a subtle, understated affair that builds towards a quietly devastating climax. Like many British dramas, it has an impressive sense of realism, boasting naturalistic dialogue that never feels false or manufactured. At the same time, it doesn’t rely on mere words to convey what the characters are going through. What they say is important, of course, but what really matters is the way that they say it. Luckily, the film is blessed with a pair of seasoned actors, both of whom are quite superb.  

Together, Rampling and Courtenay create a compelling screen couple, proving utterly convincing as two people who have been together for a very long time. Rampling is as good as she has ever been, depicting an outwardly composed woman who is experiencing a range of simmering emotions. Courtenay, meanwhile, is similarly impressive as a weary, slightly decrepit man whose past has come back to haunt him.

As far as praise is concerned, however, the lion’s share should be given to director Andrew Haigh. In 2011, the British filmmaker showed plenty of promise with Weekend, a deservedly well received drama about two gay men who spend a couple of days together. With 45 Years, Haigh provides confirmation of his talent, delivering the kind of insightful, thought-provoking relationship drama that is all too rare in modern cinema. It is, quite simply, a film that deserves to celebrated.

45 Years is released in cinemas and on Virgin Movies on Friday 28 August 


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