‘45 Years’ Less Five Shattering Days

Pembridge, Herefordshire: House on Medieval market square with sign over door: Butter Eggs Oatmeal 7/5/15
Pembridge, Herefordshire: House on Medieval market square with sign over door: Butter Eggs Oatmeal 7/5/15

The lovely long shot at the start of 45 Years (2015) shows Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) walking her Alsatian in early spring fog along a lane bordered by a line of mature oaks on one side and a field ready for planting. It bespeaks timelessness, solidity, permanence – if not quite beauty.

But the North Sea has wanted East Anglia and the East Midlands since the glaciers receded 12,000 years ago.  For a quarter of that time, humans have ditched and pumped away the water rising beneath the flat, rich land.  The Norfolk Broads, where Andrew Haigh filmed 45 Years, is dotted with ponds (‘broads’) that were medieval peat pits.

In the second scene, Kate and the dog encounter the postman, and we learn she’s a retired secondary school teacher who’ll be celebrating her 45th wedding anniversary on Saturday.

In the third scene, Kate returns to her ordinary kitchen where her husband, Geoff (Tom Courtenay), sits at table drinking tea with a business-size white envelope face down beside his left hand.

The letter which just arrived informs Geoff that a melting Swiss glacier has yielded the frozen body of his girl friend, Katia, who’d fallen into a crevice as they hiked the Alps three years before Kate met Geoff.

From this economical beginning unspools a story of misdirections and silences, of unasked questions and bitter answers.  And of lost loves.

45 Years is no murder mystery.  Its revelations can have no resolutions.  As the movie ends (perfectly) with Kate and Geoff dancing at their anniversary party to the Platters’ version of ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ (1958), one can’t imagine how the couple we met 95 minutes before will go on.

Andrew Haigh tells the story through Kate’s eyes.  And, your eyes must be as awakened as hers, for the most important revelations are shown, not discussed.

Haigh plays fair.  He foreshadows each revelation.  An innocent-seeming conversation between Kate and Geoff about their lack of snaps of themselves and Geoff’s unused Yashica in the attic tips the audience to what for Kate will be a haunting, silent discovery.

It’s easy to see 45 Years as Charlotte Rampling’s movie.  And, she does give a master class in how to hold an audience’s attention.

But as I’ve pondered the movie, I’ve realized how perfectly Tom Courtenay sets her up.  He plays a man of his own age, late 70s, who’s largely cut himself off from activity – no dog walking for him – and abandoned attention to his appearance.  He seems not so much world weary as awaiting death.

Courtenay’s visible contrast with Rampling, a brisk, neatly-dressed countrywoman in her late 60s, holds more than one of the story’s revelations.

Can I recommend 45 Years more highly?  No.  Don’t miss it.