Like its predecessor Weekend, 45 Years is a delicate domestic drama that probes the spaces between a marriage’s emotions. The film avoids melodrama and clunky exposition, letting the stilted pauses and loaded glances speak for themselves.
When Kate and Geoff Mercer receive a letter informing them that Katya, their old girlfriend who fell into an alpine crevasse and was preserved in glacial ice, has turned up alive, their quiet life is shattered.
The life of an elderly married couple might not seem like riveting cinematic fodder for moviegoers under the age of 65, but 45 Years captures the mechanics of relationships. From the outdoor scenery of Kate and Geoff’s home in rural Norfolk to a letter Geoff receives that brings back memories of his old love Katya who died in a glacier in Switzerland over 50 years ago, this film dapples scenes with hints of drama and emotion the way Jean-Auguste Renoir dappled light across his paintings.
Writer and director Andrew Haigh elevates the British realist tradition of filmmaking to artful heights with this quietly explosive drama. Starring accomplished British veterans Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, 45 Years is a master class in understated acting that explores what happens when a long-term marriage begins to crumble. The evocative wintry landscape of Norfolk serves as the perfect frame for their struggle to maintain an uneasy status quo. This is a film of profound inner drama and emotional complications.
A quiet punch to the gut
A domestic drama that’s surprisingly unpatronizing and devastatingly real, 45 Years is one of the most quietly devastating movies of the year. It’s also a showcase for Charlotte Rampling, who delivers a performance that is both nuanced and heartbreaking, and which ranks among her very best work.
British writer-director Andrew Haigh, who first came to attention with the youthful gay film Weekend, carries that style of delicately calibrated English realism onto new ground in this Berlin competition entry about a retired rural Norfolk couple facing a crisis. The film’s calm and evocative setting (nobody rearranges the furniture) serves as an apt frame for a delicate portrait of a marriage in crisis, where civility slides into ambivalence or free-flowing confidence becomes a one-way interrogation.
The movie opens with Kate and Geoff Mercer enjoying their cosy, august lifestyle: strolling through the countryside, sipping coffee in cafes, and doting on their dog. Yet this picture-perfect pair is shaken by a letter that announces the discovery of Katia, Geoff’s German lover who died in a Swiss glacier nearly five decades ago.
A haunting tale of a long-married couple
The film unfolds around the kitchen table of Kate and Geoff Mercer’s comfortable Norfolk home. Repeatedly, Haigh frames scenes through their kitchen windows from both the inside and outside to create a sense of voyeuristic intrusion. This is no Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf-style marital psychodrama, and both Rampling and Courtenay resist the temptation to overplay their roles.
It takes some time before the movie really gets underway, but once it does, it keeps up the momentum with a series of revelations that shake up the couple’s comfort zone. This is a low key drama that demands patience and rewards it with a heart-wrenching depiction of the crippling unknowability of human desire and regret.
Rampling’s performance is a masterclass in English kitchen-sink drama, and Courtenay delivers his best work since The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. Their symbiotic performances give 45 Years the air of a ghost story, with conversations that often feel closer to a one-way interrogation than free exchange.
A haunting final scene
After a week of revelation and doubt, 45 Years brings Kate and Geoff to a place where they can no longer hide behind their familiar routine. The film ends with a pause, a look between the two, and a heartbreaking moment of truth. Can a marriage that has endured illness and loss, one that has nurtured its own fire for decades, be so easily extinguished?
Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling give performances of such depth, nuance, and power in this small domestic drama. Slowly the tension between them builds until we wonder if their seemingly solid marriage can be saved.
The film is a reminder of the kinds of single dramas that used to get made on British television, but that have now disappeared from the screen (and with it, the kind of serious treatment of middle-class life that we used to get in movies like Joanna Hogg’s and Mike Leigh’s). With its spare dialogue and lingering gazes, the movie feels closer to a ghost story than your average domestic drama.