Movies don’t need much to be good except – except! – for terrific acting, directing, and writing. Case in point: writer-director Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years,” about a marriage that suddenly finds itself on the rocks a week before a planned wedding-anniversary celebration.
Geoff and Kate Mercer, played superlatively well by Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, have spent their almost 45 years of marriage in what looks to be a state of cozy, childless comfitude. A former factory manager, he’s a bookish putterer; she, a retired schoolteacher, is more ardent, though often deferring to his moods. Together they fill out the feints and parries and unspoken acknowledgments that constitute so much of the dailiness of any marriage.
The news comes very early in the movie that the corpse of Katya, an old girlfriend of Geoff’s from 50 years ago who went missing in an Alpine hiking accident, has been found preserved in ice. Since she had listed Geoff as her next of kin, he is contacted by the authorities, creating an emotional disjunction between him and Kate that increasingly she cannot abide. She can’t bear the idea that Geoff was once in love – even if it was before they met – with another woman. Worse, she fears he might still be in love with Katya, despite his protestations. (Even her name, Katya, is too close for comfort.)
He roots around in the attic and discovers photos and old letters from Katya, which Kate, without his knowledge, uncovers for herself. For Kate, these keepsakes are incriminating. When she learns that Geoff is contemplating flying to Switzerland, where Katya was found, she becomes almost unhinged by misery. Rampling’s work here is a marvel of supersubtle calibrations: The more Kate is pulled into her abyss of suspicion, the more ravaged she looks, and yet she is never more complexly beautiful than when she is torn apart by doubt.
The added frustration for Kate is that not only does she still love Geoff – if she didn’t, the movie would have little meaning – but clearly Geoff, in his own faltering, fumbling way, still very much loves her. In adapting and filling out a short story by David Constantine, Haigh understands, as his actors certainly do, that it is possible to hold more than one love in one’s heart. This may not be the most romantic of conceptions, but it hits home. The film is deepened by the suggestion, never pronounced, that the Katya revelation has exposed a marital fissure long dormant.
As plot devices go, the sudden appearance of an ice-encased old flame is a bit much, and it doesn’t help that we are meant to regard the preserved corpse as all too obviously a symbol of what once was and still remains. But, aside from this, there is nary a false note in this movie. Haigh, as he also demonstrated in his marvelous gay-themed romance “Weekend,” is remarkably good at rendering the emotional grain of a scene, in which the silences are often more eloquent than what is being spoken. There is a delicacy to how he views Geoff and Kate; he respects their melancholy and their misery enough to let it play out for us without a lot of underlining.
They live in a ramshackle house in the rural flatlands of Norfolk in eastern England, a landscape that is as expressive and changeable as their moods. At times it seems as if the weather, with its damp, dank beauty, is a co-conspirator in their drama. The atmosphere of these flatlands functions as a third protagonist.
But it is the interior lives of these people that Haigh is mining, and whenever they are closed in at home, shut off from the influence of friends and the outside elements, an aggrieved ritual plays out. Kate is almost always the one who initiates it. She is trying to provoke Geoff, who has started smoking again, into admitting something he can neither fully corroborate nor comprehend. She is trying to push him over the edge in order to confirm her worst fears, whether those fears are grounded or not. Fear has made her a fatalist.
Neither Geoff nor Kate is ever rendered as “unsympathetic,” a testament to Haigh’s deep and evenhanded concern for these people. What passes between them cannot properly be called high tragedy, since it issues from the well-worn middle-class mundaneness of their lives. If “45 Days” is a tragedy, it’s a tragedy without a summation. Despite the ineffably moving speech Geoff delivers to the assemblage at the anniversary party, perhaps the finest piece of acting in Courtenay’s long career, it is not at all clear where these people are headed, or what shoals await. Grade: A- (Rated R for language and brief sexuality.)