45 Years is probably the finest ghost movie of the decade thus far, and it isn’t even a horror film. The ghost in question manifests no physical presence, but it’s effect is pronounced, steering an incredibly rich, understated character piece down some fascinating avenues.
Written and directed by Andrew Haigh and taking place in the span of less than a week, 45 Years presents us contented middle class couple Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtney). Both of retirement age, they have a modest but beautiful country home. Kate takes the dog out walking first thing in the morning. Geoff isn’t quite the man we sense he once was; the advancing years starting to take their toll on both body and mind. One wonders initially if Haigh intends to pursue a similar line of questioning that Michael Hanake employed to devastating effect with Amour. But no, he has an altogether different marital test in mind.
At this particular time Kate and Geoff are a few short days away from the titular milestone; an anniversary set to be celebrated locally with a party. Yet the road there is destined to be upset by events of the past as long kept secrets unearth themselves.
Geoff receives word that the body of an old flame, Katya, has been discovered in Switzerland, perfectly preserved, frozen in time since she went missing during a hike 50 years ago. He confides to Kate that he is considered Katya’s next of kin, as the two of them had pretended to be married for their mutual benefit. Over the course of the next few days – and played out with the perfect pacing of a fine mystery unravelling – further aspects of Geoff and Katya’s secret history will reveal themselves, sending Kate into an increasing free fall of second guesses and re-evaluations of the relationship she has used in part to define her life.
The somewhat elaborate circumstances of Katya’s rediscovery are certainly no coincidence. She is present in mind (though never directly seen) as ageless; a reprimand from time itself, reminding Kate and Geoff alike of its inherent cruelties. Katya is lost youth, re-emerging now as a memory that’s bittersweet nostalgia for Geoff – who lulls selfishly back into the past – and as a haunting cause of insecurity for Kate. Geoff is forthright in his initial confession to Kate, but it comes from being caught out. What hurts Kate – and also piques morbid curiosity in equal measure – is just why Geoff would never have shared this important page from his past with her. How deep does the wound go?
The film opens in darkness to the sound of a Kodak carousel shuffling slides one by one. This very device – a nostalgic implement in itself – becomes the apparatus of one of 45 Years‘ key scenes. At the time of the film’s beginning the sound is perfectly innocuous. Only later is it’s significance revealed.
Haigh’s film is refreshingly pragmatic about age in the sense that nothing here suggests making a dramatic film about a couple in their late sixties or early seventies should be anywhere near remarkable. Sure, the pacing matches the material appropriately, but it doesn’t stop the nuanced action – anchored by two perfect lead performances – from being utterly riveting once the story gets it’s claws in you. Haigh uses Rampling and Courtney to wonderful effect in this regard. His filmmaking is commendably without ego yet feels quietly masterful; he’s no need to showboat when he’s this sure of himself. He trusts his resources, and as such allows the actors to engross the viewer. There are several long scenes of conversation early on and these are utilised with such deft expertise that you don’t know you’re being sucked in until later when you feel the stakes as greatly as the characters do.
In that respect there’s a kinship with the films of Alexander Payne here. Both directors, separated by an ocean, understand the value in both character and trusting in an audience’s capacity for empathy in order to construct great story telling. And while there are necessary and welcome moments of levity, this is no cloying, patronising oh-aren’t-the-elderly-funny Sunday tea time throwaway film, rather it’s a serious piece of work with deeply felt questions about betrayal, commitment, regret and reconciliation.
That last is the gun on the wall that hangs over the second half of 45 Years, providing a handsome amount of tension. As Kate learns more of Geoff’s past, the hurt wears on her more and more, until we’re left to wonder what the future holds for these two, who seemed so devoted at the top of the picture. It seems absurd for 45 years of marriage to be undone within a few days… and yet also a frighteningly real possibility. Once Katya is exorcised from the locked room of memory, one feels her deeply in the corners of every frame, pressing in on the couple, threatening to be their undoing.
I don’t know if I’ve ever seen Rampling on finer form. One of the UK’s more revered actresses and rightly so, her portrayal of Kate is both naturalistic and muted, yet bristling with a barely contained fire and vigor. Courtney’s Tom is likewise a minor miracle though for totally different reasons. Self-deprecating but with a hint of mild internalised panic, well aware that he might be staring into an abyss of his own creation, he allows a great deal of sympathy and frustration to amount for his well-intentioned, quietly befuddled character. It’s a yin and yang trade-off that makes for one of 2015’s most watchable screen pairings.
It might seem unassuming, but 45 Years is one of the year’s more electric pieces of work. Once it had me, it really had me, right ’til the end. The race for best British film of the year just got itself a clear front-runner*. Great stuff.
*as long as that conversation doesn’t include The Duke Of Burgundy, briefly forgotten while writing the above.