Graham Greene’s line about the perils of insecurity in relationships, how it “twists meanings and poisons trust”, feels particularly pertinent when reflecting upon writer/director Andrew Haigh’s profoundly poignant second feature, 45 Years. The quote comes from Greene’s 1951 novel The End of the Affair, which examined the obsessions, jealously and discernments felt by 3 individuals locked in a love triangle. Narratively, Haigh’s film has little in common with Greene’s prose, but it shares the same thematic DNA; like The End of the Affair, 45 Years is an honest and heartbreaking allegory of the agonies that can come from falling in love.
The title refers to the length of Kate Mercer’s (Charlotte Rampling) marriage to her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay). It’s one week until their 45th wedding anniversary, and plans for a big party involving friends & family are coming together nicely.
In one early scene we see Kate being shown around the venue for their reception, “it’s so full of history you see, like a good marriage” says the guide of the location, acknowledging this landmark in the central couple’s matrimonial life. And indeed, from where we’re watching, Kate & Geoff’s union looks to be one built on strong foundations and long-lasting memories. Though they are both independent people, there’s an intimacy shared between them that transcends simple companionship; they’re devoted to, but crucially not dependent on each other.
Then one morning a letter arrives for Geoff, informing him that the body of his first love Katya, whom he had holidayed with in the early 60s, has been found frozen & preserved in the icy glaciers of the Swiss Alps. And as the intricacies of that relationship are slowly revealed, Geoff begins to withdraw into himself, leaving Kate to re-evaluate their own relationship, and the choices they’ve each made.
Haigh has adapted his film from a short story written by David Constantine. On paper it appears to be quite simplistic in scope, with Geoff’s revelations allowing both himself and Kate to consider their life together as the eponymous marital milestone draws ever closer. The genius lies in the emotional depth that Haigh delicately brings to the surface, and then proceeds to deliberate upon.
Tonally, 45 Years shares similarities with Michael Haneke’s Amour, in that both films offer a quietly devastating depiction of a couple coming to terms with the aging process. While Haigh’s delicate direction occupies the same subtle stillness that Joanna Hogg is known to inhabit.
Perhaps surprisingly, however, the film 45 Years draws greater contextual comparisons with is David Fincher’s Gone Girl. Of course, that film was a far more sensationalist and commercial commentary on the institution of marriage, but its thesis of how psychological insecurity shared by one or both partners can cause indelible cracks to form within a relationship resonates here… although thankfully (and spoiler alert for the that one person who still hasn’t seen or read Gone Girl), Kate never appears to consider crafting a convoluted plan for revenge as a way of curing her own marital issues.
Instead, Kate finds herself attempting to alleviate her own uncertainties. After all, Geoff’s relationship with Katya had reached its tragic end long before she had even met him, this piece of ancient history just shouldn’t matter to her.
And yet, it does. As Geoff becomes evermore consumed with his memories of Katya – at one point he awakens in the middle of the night to search the attic for pictures of her – Kate finds herself obsessing over how this death of someone she never knew has systematically shaped her own life. “We never talked about it, in all the years that we’ve known each other. And it’s tainted everything”, says Kate, painfully, as all of the anxieties she tried to suppress begin to emerge; had Katya lived, would Geoff have ever met or moreover married her; in another life where Katya didn’t exist, would Geoff have been more likely to commit & have children with her? Though we never actually meet Katya (she’s briefly seen in the slides Geoff has of their holiday), Haigh ensures her presence is felt from the moment that letter arrives; her memory haunting the pair like a ghost.
Throughout, Haigh’s direction is elegantly elusive. He frames the film almost entirely in Medium long shots, and shoots many scenes in lingering single takes, which give the emotional complexity within his script the space to develop naturally. Aided by Charlotte Rampling & Tom Courtenay’s astonishing performances, both are organic & ornate, the mood Haigh crafts from the outset is one of disquieting melancholy that’s carefully understated and agonisingly affecting.
His sound design is equally as effective. All of the music we hear is diegetic, songs from Kate & Geoff’s past that amplify the sadness felt by them now, in the present.
Haigh’s musical masterstroke comes at the film’s climax, an arresting final sequence that raises more thoughts & questions than your heartbroken mind is able to handle, and which culminates in a remarkable and restrained final shot that’s accompanied by the moving, melodic tones of The Platters. Fittingly, Kate & Geoff’s song of choice is ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’; inevitably, as the song plays out, it’s tears you will find forming in yours.
Director: Andrew Haigh
Writers: David Constantine (short story), Andrew Haigh (adaptation)
Stars: Charlotte Rampling, Dolly Wells, Tom Courtenay
Runtime: 95 mins
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