Andrew Haigh’s startlingly assured 2011 film Weekend chronicled the intense connection between two young gay men over the course of a few days in a working-class suburb of London. As these two very dissimilar people find themselves—despite their best intentions—beginning to fall in love, what was meant to be a one-night stand becomes a pivotal moment in both their lives.
Haigh’s new film, 45 Years, would seem to be a radical departure. The story follows a much older straight couple who live in relative affluence in a picturesque house in the English countryside. Rather than debating life-changing decisions about whether and with whom to settle down, the retired and happily child-free Kate and Geoff Mercer spend their days weighing much smaller choices: Should they take their German shepherd for a walk or ride the bus into the village to do some errands? What sort of canapés might be nice to serve at their upcoming 45th-anniversary party?
But 45 Years has much more in common with Weekend than meets the eye. Both movies are intimate two-person chamber pieces that take place over a limited span of time. Both take sly aim at traditional romantic ideals (love at first sight, long-lasting companionate marriage) while also being, in their own ways, deeply romantic. And both movies feature a pair of lead performances so intertwined that at times they seem to fuse into a single shared endeavor, the way real-life romantic partners can appear to be creating each other, and themselves, as they go along.
Of course, that ongoing act of mutual self-creation is a fragile thing, since it makes each partner’s identity dependent on the other’s recognition. Kate (the incomparable Charlotte Rampling) experiences this fragility firsthand the morning her husband (the irreplaceable Tom Courtenay), opening a letter at the breakfast table, goes suddenly quiet. When Kate presses him, he reluctantly fills her in: In Switzerland, a receding glacier has revealed the long-lost remains of his former girlfriend. In 1962, Geoff was on a hiking trip with a German woman named Katja when she disappeared into a fissure in the ice.
Kate is familiar with only the most basic thumbnail version of this story from Geoff’s past. After all, the accident happened years before they met, and as he explains before they go to bed that night, “It’s hardly the sort of thing you tell your beautiful new girlfriend.” But over the next few days, as the anniversary party draws nearer, Geoff’s behavior changes, and Kate’s disquiet grows. He takes up smoking again, a habit they had quit together years ago. He sneaks out of bed in the middle of the night to search out an old photo of Katja in the attic crawlspace. He visits a travel agent to inquire about tickets to Switzerland. Suddenly unsure of her place in Geoff’s heart, Kate grows anxious and unsettled. She encourages him to attend a reunion with his old work buddies, in part so she can root around in that crawlspace herself.
What Kate discovers about her husband’s past is less important than the fact she suddenly feels the need to start digging into it. 45 Years is a movie about the interstices that exist in between emotions in a complex long-term relationship. Haigh is interested in those moments when complacency abruptly shades into ambivalence, or a free exchange of confidences becomes a one-way interrogation. This isn’t Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?–style marital psychodrama; Geoff and Kate’s English civility never devolves into screaming matches or name-calling. But 45 Years (which Haigh also wrote, based on a short story by David Constantine) has one of those spare scripts in which every apparently spontaneous line, pause, and gesture fulfills a specific dramatic purpose. The history of Kate and Geoff’s relationship emerges in their passing references to a shared experience or long-dormant joke—no need for cumbersome flashbacks or voice-over to establish what the two of them have been for each other.
Visually as well as verbally, the movie is full of open space. The country lanes where Kate takes her daily dog walks (filmed in misty 35 mm by cinematographer Lol Crawley) are often seen from a great distance, so that human and animal figures appear as specks against the landscape. This choice of framing suggests a connection between the absent, idealized Katja and the living, aging Kate—a woman jealous of her romantic rival’s ability to remain literally frozen in time.
Though it takes place almost entirely inside and around the Mercers’ house, 45 Years doesn’t feel static or confining. If anything, it’s the scenes that attempt to open the story up to other characters and locations that seem superfluous. Courtenay, Rampling, a full teapot, and an unfinished sentence are enough to create high drama. Seeing these two magnificent actors share a screen can’t help but evoke memories of the swinging ’60s, when both were darlings of the art house: Courtenay for English kitchen-sink dramas like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Rampling for stylishly bleak European films like The Damned. Now 78, Courtenay both is and isn’t the same pixie-ish rogue he was back then, and the 69-year-old Rampling both is and isn’t the same smoldering green-eyed beauty. Without vanity or self-congratulation, both actors bare their bodies as matter-of-factly as their souls, including during a nude sex scene that’s gently comic without being either cutesy or mocking.
The movie’s bravura final sequence, which takes place at the 45th anniversary party itself, is beautifully staged to convey the complex battle of emotions going on inside Kate’s head with an absolute minimum of dialogue. (It doesn’t hurt that Rampling’s stern gaze is more expressive in stillness than most actors’ faces are in motion.) Kate’s last gesture before the film ends will be the subject of many a postmovie conversation. Will there be a 50th-anniversary party for this loving but troubled couple? Is there ever any way to really know?
Looking back on that fateful day on the glacier with Katja, Courtenay’s Geoff at one point remarks that he no longer understands the connection between that young man and the person he is now. 45 Years is about the relationship of the present to the past and of our past loves to our present lives—a relationship that, like any good marriage, remains a total mystery.