Excuse me while I just have a moment of complete adoration and awe of this film. I was honestly not expecting much from this film – it just seemed so small and unassuming, and something that would be good and well-made, but not necessarily notable or significant. However, 45 Years is a film that approaches you without trying to make any grandiose or notable impressions, but slowly builds up and by the time this film has ended, by which point the audience has been suitably captivated to be fully enveloped in the story, the film packs an enormously emotional punch, and becomes undeniably the most beautiful, poignant film of the year, and definitely one of the very best.
The film tells a story that doesn’t immediately draw audiences in – it is simply about an elderly couple that live in the countryside and are rapidly approaching their forty-fifth wedding anniversary, planned by Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) as a substitute for their fortieth anniversary that had to be cancelled as there was illness that prevented it from happening. The film tells of the days leading up to the extravagant celebration of their marriage that coming weekend, but in those five days, their marriage is put to the test after Geoffrey (Tom Courtenay) discovers that the body of a former lover from before he and Kate were married, who fell to her death and froze to death in the Alps, has been found, and while it is not supposed to be significant – their love affair happened years before Geoff and Kate knew each other, this discovery casts a dark shadow over the days of their impending anniversary party, and both Kate and Geoff find it very difficult to ignore this trivial but significant discovery, and to concentrate on their marriage.
In the pantheon of great British actresses, the same names are always thrown around – Dame Helen Mirren, Dame Judi Dench, Dame Maggie Smith. Their talent is evident and undeniable, and I adore them unconditionally. However, one name is constantly glossed over, and I think this actress is equally as brilliant and talented as the dames, but she just hardly receives the praise and iconic status that the others do – I am talking of course of Charlotte Rampling, who has had decades of solid, brilliant film work, but has yet to receive the acclaim she deserves. That was until 45 Years, which is a film that finally gave Rampling the chance to be an undeniable critical darling in an era where one film can make you a star, or have a comeback, or (in the case of Rampling) simply remind audiences that you are one of the most talented actresses of her generation. In 45 Years, Rampling plays Kate, a former schoolteacher content with her quiet retirement in the countryside with her husband of nearly five decades, Geoffrey and her simple but pleasing life, and she is very happy with her simple existence.
However, the startling revelation of the discovery of Katya’s body puts Kate’s mind into a place where she has to consider if the previous four decades of her marriage to Geoff has somehow been a sham in a way. She needs to consider that if Katya had not died, would Geoff have married her and never had met Kate? It is highly likely that Katya’s death was the reason why Geoff married Kate in the end, because he needed someone to spend his life with, and if death hadn’t visited the lovers on that unfortunate day half a century before, perhaps there wouldn’t have been a chance that Geoff and Kate would have had the lives they do. Of course, this film depends on the performances of the two leads, and Rampling and Courtenay are absolutely splendid in their respective performances as Kate and Geoff. Rampling is utterly heartbreaking as Kate, and she gives the best performance by an actress this year by far. Not only are her interactions with Courtenay honest and natural, but her solitary moments prove to be a truly masterclass of subtle but effective acting. There are many moments in this film that show Rampling on her own, and without saying a word, she conveys the explicit heartbreak and devastation that is happening in her mind throughout this film. The emotions displayed in Rampling’s face and gestures throughout this film are touching and devastating, and prove that Rampling is capable of giving an outstanding performance without even saying a word. Rampling’s performance here touched me deeply, and from the first moment where we see her walking her dog, to the last devastating shot, where we see her tearful face, she certainly gives the best performance of the year, and no one has come close to matching what she has done here.
Of course, that isn’t to imply that Courtenay was not on the exact same level as Rampling. Playing Geoff, a man who is conflicted between two women – who is the great love of his life? The faded, youthful memory of Katya, who he adored in their brief time together as “heedless” youths (as he describes them), or Kate, the woman who he has spent the vast majority of his life with, in a safe and meaningful, but slightly distant marriage. It is absolutely undeniable that Geoff loves his wife with every inch of his adoration, and their love is boundless. However, much like Kate goes through the motions of wondering if Geoff truly loves her, Geoff has to consider whether or not Kate or Katya was his soul-mate. He isn’t sure – is it the woman he loved, or the woman he grew to love? The relationship between Kate and Geoff is undeniably one of love and mutual adoration, but the question that begs to be answered is this – they may love each other, but were they meant for each other? This in itself is a very unique and natural approach to a story of a marriage, and the fact that this film doesn’t cause the marriage to dissolve, and by the end of the film, the marriage has neither weakened nor grown stronger, but rather just gone through a tumultuous period. The ending is ambiguous, and we don’t know where their marriage will go from here, but a part of me hopes that they remain married and realize their true love is much stronger than anything Geoff had with his schoolboy crush.
45 Years is a shockingly great film – sweet, simple and very effective. Beautifully made, and director Andrew Haigh manages to both capture the sadness of the situation through the dialogue, and through the most quiet moments, through silence and pure emotion. Charlotte Rampling is an absolute revelation, and Tom Courtenay is absolutely fantastic. It is a brilliant film, and definitely one of the very best of the year. An absolute and moving masterpiece and a realistic and truly touching piece of art.