The word “infidelity” likely conjures very specific images in the minds of most; a young couple entangled in a forbidden tryst, lonesome spouses finding succor in the arms of another person, egotists two-timing their partners in hotels for the sheer thrill of it. But we’re just as capable of emotional betrayals as carnal liaisons, of sentimental intimacy rather than physical intimacy, though it is subjective as to whether one is more harmful to a romantic bond than the other.
In 45 Years, however, English filmmaker Andrew Haigh makes his audience see how affairs of the heart can be just as devastating as affairs of the flesh, if not more so. Audiences likely know Haigh for Looking, his HBO series, and Weekend, his 2011 sophomore film. Both of these revolve around the sexual relationships and life ambitions of gay protagonists, so if you’re the type to categorize people by niche, 45 Years might initially strike as an anomaly in Haigh’s limited but impeccable oeuvre: the film puts its focus on a sixty-something hetero couple instead of young gay men searching for love and figuring out their stuff. “What,” you might ask, “is a queer auteur doing making movies about old straight people?”
If you find yourself asking this question, here’s a bit of advice: stop. Sexual orientation is a driving factor in much of Haigh’s work, sure, but he’s a compassionate storyteller with a keen eye for documenting the many intricate layers of human feeling. That’s the quality that makes Looking, and especially Weekend, so startlingly good, and he applies his observational skills with incredible aplomb to the central drama of 45 Years. The film adapts a short story by David Constantine for the screen, in which fate throws a monkey wrench in the anniversary plans of husband and wife Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling). They’re putting together a shindig to celebrate forty five years of matrimony; as the picture begins, only a week remains until the day arrives, and Kate is busy reserving venues and putting together song lists while Geoff is stuck in a state of reverie.
Geoff has received a letter from Swiss authorities regarding the body of his late girlfriend, Katya, the woman he dated before meeting Kate. As Geoff explains, Katya fell to her death while they were on a glacier hike in Switzerland fifty years prior; in the present, her remains, perfectly preserved by their environment, have been found, which sends Geoff traipsing down memory lane with a reluctant Kate in tow. If you like, you may read 45 Years as the unjust trial of Geoff, as presided over by Kate. Geoff technically does nothing wrong, nothing to earn Kate’s distrust, or ire, or repudiation. But Haigh isn’t interested in right and wrong, black and white, good or bad, faithful or faithless, and so his film isn’t about what Geoff does or does not do (though in fairness, referring to Katya as “my Katya” to begin with is poor footing). It’s about the endless, unseen complexities that all marriages are built on.
Courtenay and Rampling are billed as co-leads, but there’s no denying that this is her movie more than it is his. Kate is lively and motivated; she’s the source of all of 45 Years’ action, so to speak, and she gives the narrative its spark. So too does Rampling lend the production itself a heart. For awards pundits and jaded cinephiles alike, 2015 is a stacked year for filling out Best Actress ballots. Carol boasts excellent work from both Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett, Room features a never-better Brie Larson, Saoirse Ronan dazzles in Brooklyn, Kate Winslet runs circles around Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs, Charlize Theron dominates Mad Max: Fury Road, and Alicia Vikander, the most ubiquitous actress of the year, saves The Danish Girl from being completely crummy and worthless. Rampling, next to each of her peers, turns out a performance of deceptive grace. She works quietly, but her muted flourishes are no less powerful for their reticence. In a season that’s flush with career-best efforts from a slew of gifted actresses, Rampling’s portrait of dignified heartache is a standout. She really, truly acts, and without doing anything that’s easily recognized as actorly.
By contrast to Kate, Geoff is a bit of a dope, a highly educated type who is endearingly absentminded and likely wouldn’t last a month on his own; when Kate leaves their comfortable digs for a brief jaunt into town, he winds up cutting himself while effecting repairs around the place. Chalk part of it up to bumbling charm and the rest to unwitting narcissism. Maybe throw some British reserve in there, too, because neither Geoff nor Kate tend to talk much about the defining “stuff” of their lives. Geoff, for example, has said little to Kate about his time with Katya, while Kate never talked much to Geoff about her mother’s passing, which coincided with Katya’s own. Kate starts to wonder at Geoff’s silence. So do we. 45 Years doesn’t treat Geoff’s silence on the topic as mysterious, but the film nonetheless feels like a mystery.
Haigh keeps his distance from the pair along their journey to their upcoming celebrations. Restraint is the key to Weekend, arguably one of the best relationship dramas of the decade, where each scene is shot with the utmost care and a deliberate eye; in the four years since, Haigh has refined his cool filmmaking economy into craftsmanship that’s pristine without being cold. There is warmth here, fire even, especially as Kate’s unease over the invocation of Katya’s name grows from moment to moment, from scene to scene, before eventually mutating into a sense of deception. There are no lies here, per se, other than lies by omission, but even those can shatter one’s perception of their soulmate. Watching 45 Years twice alters the way we see the film just as much as the revelations Kate stumbles upon alter the way she sees Geoff and the years she has spent with him.
Saying more of the movie’s specifics than that would be saying too much, but the sum of its parts is devastating. Like Geoff, the film is obsessed by the past in ways that cut us as deeply as they cut Kate. In order to watch 45 Years without feeling gutted by the end, you must lack the requisite guts entirely.