Andrew Haigh’s captivating feature film ’45 Years’ is one of the best works of the year, says Peter Dunne.
If your whole life has been built around loving another person who you begin to doubt loves you the same way, what then has your life meant? Have you wasted it? This is a question hinted at in Andrew Haigh’s melancholic slow burner ’45 Years’.
Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are making preparations for their 45th wedding anniversary when a long forgotten ghost returns in the form of a letter. The body of Geoff’s first love, Katya, who was lost on a hiking expedition in Sweden, has been found, almost perfectly preserved, frozen in ice. This outlandish event tilts the couple’s quiet equilibrium and Kate watches as the life she thought they had together slowly slides away. Through her eyes we see subtle but niggling changes in Geoff’s behaviour. Are his sudden bursts of activity, his desire to rekindle their lovemaking and his nostalgia for the past, a response to their upcoming milestone or an attempt to claw back towards his youth and a life he might have had with someone else?
While the girlfriend literally frozen in time is a symbol that may seem way too on-the-nose, it’s forgivable in its perfection. This is a beauty that never had to age, a body that didn’t struggle and fail, a human representation of the road that could have been taken. And there lies Kate’s worry, does she need to compete with a dream, and if so, how?
Writer and director Andrew Haigh’s previous works, ‘Greek Pete’, the terrifically understated ‘Weekend’, and the divisive TV series ‘Looking’, may have all concerned themselves primarily with the lives of gay men but ’45 Years’ proves him to be no one-note pony. Focusing on a demographic rarely given centre screen, Haigh shows how heartbreak can only but wound deeper when one has loved longer. While the film may alienate some due to its outward lack of pyrotechnics, the initial slow pace pays dividends as the actions of the acutely realised characters affect all the more as time has been given to get to know them.
The success of a character study always depends on the actor’s involved, and Haigh proves no slouch in bringing out their best. Both of the exceptional leads bring lifetimes of experience to their roles, with Courtenay powerful and essential as the bumbling, yet enigmatic Geoff, but as becomes apparent, this is Rampling’s show. Turning the screen into a window, she barely leaves our sight as we follow Kate’s gradual erosion. To call what she gives here a fantastic performance would almost be an insult, she is this woman, down to the bones. Her characterisation is so subtle, so real, that when the inevitable emotional peaks hit, they are all the more devastating. It has to be said this is the best work of the year so far.
Counting among its many strong points a refusal to provide neat answers to the questions posed, this haunted and haunting film leads to a conclusion which suggests that while this is not a love story, it is a story about loving, and what that takes from you.
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