45 Years is a romantic triangle between a man, a woman and a secret. Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are preparing a big bash with friends in Norfolk to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary (they missed out on their 40th because he was ill). The invitations have gone out. The RSVPs have been collected. Then Geoff receives a letter informing him that the body of a woman has been found in the Swiss Alps, preserved in ice. She has been identified as Katya, and she listed Geoff as her next of kin.
Geoff had mentioned Katya before, in passing, years ago. But he had never talked about her much. Now, his memory stirred by the letter, Geoff comes clean, telling Kate about her with the blunt honesty shared by two people who have spent most of their lives together. Katya was the woman he loved before he met his wife. He watched her slip and fall to her death while they were on vacation. He never told Kate any of this because he didn’t think it was important.
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But Kate thinks it’s important — so important that she begins to question the validity of every aspect of her marriage. Has it all been a lie? Has her husband been thinking about another woman all this time? Is Kate the one he merely settled for? “I can hardly be cross for something that happened before we existed, can I?” she tells her husband, trying to tamp down her anger. “But still.”
45 Years was written and directed by Andrew Haigh, whose previous film, 2011’s Weekend, encapsulated the breadth of an entire relationship inside a one-night stand between two young gay men. Haigh uses a similar narrative shorthand in 45 Years, adapting David Constantine’s short story In Another Country with great restraint and simplicity. Set during the week leading up to the anniversary party, the movie is filled with small, loaded moments that resonate like gunshots in an echo chamber. One night, Geoff’s sexual drive awakens. But during the act, Kate asks him to open his eyes and look at her, and he loses interest and calls it a night.
An hour or two later, Kate wakes up to find Geoff rummaging through their attic, searching for something. For what? A photo. Of whom? You know who. Rampling, an actress of fiery, regal talent, lets a flurry of emotions flit across her face — anger, jealousy, confusion, fear — and you feel the daunting scope of Kate’s dilemma. It’s a staggering performance. The movie unfolds through her wide, unbelieving eyes, which now question everything and trust nothing. Later, Kate goes into the attic herself, searching for answers she doesn’t really want. The discovery she makes kicks the movie into emotional overdrive, but Haigh keeps the tone calm and serene. These people suffer silently, no matter how great their pain.
Courtenay is good, too, as a man who pulls away from his wife at the point in life when they should be at their closest. Geoff starts to disappear into the recesses of memories we are not made privy to: He becomes as enigmatic to us as he has suddenly become to Kate. When he tells her he loves her, you don’t doubt his sincerity. But does he even understand what loving another person means? Or did that part of him die along with Katya? 45 Years doesn’t give you any pat answers. But the movie ends on a formidable shot that crams all the tumult Kate has experienced over the course of the film into one breathtaking moment. Sometimes, just when you think you have things figured out, life throws a curve ball.
Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, Dolly Wells.
Writer-director: Andrew Haigh. Based on the story “In Another Country” by David Constantine.
An IFC Films release. Running time: 95 minutes. Brief vulgar language, sexual situations. In Miami-Dade only: O Cinema Miami Beach, Bill Cosford Cinema, South Beach, Tower (with Spanish subtitles); in Broward: Cinema Paradiso Hollywood, Gateway; in Palm Beach: Living Room, Shadowood, Palace, Delray, Lake Worth.