Dear Fellow Film Critics,
2015 offered up some pretty high-octane cinema - a man on Mars, a Max gone mad, and galaxies far, far away. But none of these magna opera hold a candle to the quiet, unadorned, explosion-free drama that is my absolute favourite film of 2015. Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years commanded all of my attention and emotion, broke my heart, and haunts me months after seeing it.
A week shy of his 45th wedding anniversary, Geoff learns that the remains of his former lover, Katya, have been found, 50 years after she fell to her death during a Swiss hiking holiday. He drifts away to where his wife, Kate, can’t seem to reach him. And with that slight tug, a lifetime of contentment and comfort begins to unravel, exposing the fragile center that arguably lies at the heart of all human bonds, even those we think unbreakable. Especially those.
A huge part of why I love 45 Years so much is that it reminds me of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, which is only the most awesome and flawless novel ever written. In it, the memory of the deceased first love poisons the mind of the new wife with questions and doubts. In 45 Years, Katya, perfectly preserved in a glacier, frozen in time and in Geoff’s old photographs hidden in the attic, comes to haunt Kate, no longer the new wife, but aged and weathered compared to the ghost of the woman whose place she took. But while Rebecca in du Maurier’s novel is a sinister, overwhelming presence that almost commands more of our attention as the live characters, Katya never really becomes important to the audience. It is Kate to whom our hearts go out, as Geoff withdraws into his memories and residual grief, leaving her to her sadness, jealousy, and disillusionment. As Kate and Geoff, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are amazing together, breathtakingly intimate one instant, and suddenly, jarringly, alien to each other the next. The undoing of their relationship is so tough to watch because, at the beginning, they do such a brilliant job of drawing you into their cozy, content little world.
The film has an elegant ‘bare bones’ feel to it, from its simple yet masterful cinematography to the absence of a musical score. Yet, it never feels empty or lacking. Each scene is suffused with an intimacy and energy that belie its slow pace. The neat, static framing of each shot allows the characters to draw together and apart as they struggle to grasp at what was once solid between them and is now startlingly fragile. The lighting plays between obscuration and illumination, the week-long, foggy, greyness giving way to warmth and brightness only towards the end (with no small amount of irony), at Geoff and Kate’s anniversary party, the happy ending that should be but is not to be.
45 Years is getting some well-deserved love at the top of awards season, most notably for Charlotte Rampling’s portrayal of Kate. The camera often remains on her face for long stretches, and it’s like she packs three pages of dialogue into the wordless droop of her eyes and the subtle turn at corners of her mouth. Rampling is never less than utterly brilliant, so it almost feels redundant to go on about what a great job she does, but I will say that the real marvel of her performance is that it owns the narrative but also grants you room to move with her and feel as she feels, and you can’t help but wonder, “What would I do if…?” or “How would I feel if…?” Going into the Oscar race for Best Actress, there is only one shot that really needs to be submitted for consideration – the very last one; Kate’s face in close up, placid on the surface, struggling to contain the turmoil just beneath. It is a devastating image, and I was a mess as the credits rolled.
As much as I love to be entertained and dazzled, I can’t resist the small, out-of-nowhere films that swipe my legs out from under me. While 45 Years is a pretty film, and at first seems like a gentle film, it is by no means an easy film. I enjoyed the big blockbusters on most ‘Best of 2015’ lists, but this one broke me in a way none of the post-apocalyptic, outer-space, teeth-rattling fare even came close.