Time is both a blessing and a curse in Andrew Haigh’s marvellously mature drama 45 Years, which chronicles the near-unravelling of a marriage on the eve of the couple’s 45th anniversary. For a marriage to survive such a long time, there has to be everything that Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Jeff (Tom Courtenay) apparently have in spades: mutual respect, an unspoken comfort with each other, shared trust, and even still some flicker of a romantic spark. They live cozily in the English countryside, making occasional trips to the nearby village and passing the time by reading a book or walking the dog. It’s a love story that’s nearing its final chapter, two people just enjoying the slow pace and warm familiarity of each other’s company.
This all has to be communicated in a couple shots, because Haigh wastes no time introducing his inciting incident. Jeff receives a letter that his former lover’s body has finally been found fifty years after she fell to her death on a Swiss glacier. This discovery gives Jeff the closure he never had and it leads him on a journey of reflection, dredging up the past with fond tales of his aimless adventures alongside Katya.
For Jeff, this generates a sense of longing that morphs into a near obsession with recalling his glory days, but for Kate, such talk quickly becomes tiresome. She tries to be supportive at first, listening and even asking questions to allow Jeff to share more stories, but there's a limit to how much she can take. Irritation turns into distrust and Kate begins to wonder how much of the story Jeff is holding from her.
The decision to tell the story from Kate's perspective isolates the narrative in the murkiness of grey area. There's nothing dramatically simplified about Haigh's approach. If the perspective is swapped, then Kate risks coming off as a villain. It would be too easy to make her harp on poor, grieving Jeff and prop him up as the victim, since of course it’s understandable that he’s recalling his youthful experiences of years past, experiences that star now-phantom Katya. But of course it’s also understandable that Kate eventually grows sick and tired of hearing Jeff prattle on about his lost love.
By positioning the story from Kate’s side, Jeff’s commitment to remembering Katya so fondly and lovingly adopts an almost adulterous angle even though no moral sin has actually been committed. Haigh smartly doesn’t pass judgment on either party, accepting that marriage is, well, complicated. If Jeff hasn’t been completely honest with Kate, he certainly hasn’t done so in a voluntary attempt at betrayal and if Kate hasn't had the patience to deal with Jeff's late-life crisis, she probably has good reason considering that Jeff is wallowing in self-pity for an event that occurred more than half a century ago.
What's so intriguing about the conflict at 45 Years' core is that it never suggests either person is wrong, resisting the temptation to pick sides. Nor are both characters right, though. It's all a testament to how you can spend nearly five decades with someone in as intimate a situation as possible and still not know everything about them. In some ways, we remain mysteries to even our closest companions.
Haigh explores this concept beautifully and surprisingly, so his movie doesn't become some grand critique of marriage itself, but rather a commentary on its complexities. He's not even looking for a definitive happy or sad ending to wrap up Jeff and Kate's love story. For Haigh, there's as much room in this tale for hope as there is for despair. The whole picture walks a fine line with scenes generally consisting of mundane activities, like Kate examining the hall where the anniversary party is to be held or Jeff, well, not doing much of anything. Even when Jeff actually goes out (for a walk, to an old retired co-workers get-together), we only see him after the fact, not during the activity. It's in the subtle spaces between their routines and plans that we can glimpse beneath the surface of these two.
In order to achieve such subtle character dynamics, Haigh needs great actors giving great performances and as he proved in his debut feature Weekend, he has a knack for extracting roundly authentic, lived-in turns by his talent. Here he has veteran performers to direct and Courtenay and Rampling deliver exquisite work. Both are among the finest performances of the year and both can say so much in a scene without any need for dialogue.
Their chemistry is palpable, so they're completely convincing as a long-married couple, which in turn raises the stakes because we feel there's a very real relationship on the line here. Haigh's slice-of-life style rejects any possibility of sentimentality, making the movie's accumulating emotional effect an unexpectedly moving and honest one.
This is small-scale relationship examination at its finest, with every piece of the puzzle adding to the believability and the complexity of the situation. Haigh expertly exposes how strong a bond can be after so many years together and yet how quickly that bond can be eroded. 45 Years is not a depressing anti-love story, but it isn't an ultimately optimistic ode to love conquering all, either. It's a meticulous consideration of how time causes the human experience to ebb and flow, so the past influences the present and the present transforms the past. We're strapped to our own history and bound by love. Jeff and Kate know this well, but as for how their story turns out, only time will tell.