45 Years is Quiet and Powerful

45 YEARS (2015)
Directed by Andrew Haigh
Sundance Selects, 95 minutes, R (for language and suggestive geriatric sex)
* * * *

Call this one "Portrait of a Successful Marriage in Crisis." Geoff and Kate Mercer (Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling) are deep into their golden years and have settled into a predictable and quiet life in their cottage in the Norfolk Broads–a routine in which Kate walks the dog each morning and returns home to down a glass of water, then settle down to a cup of tea and a chat with Tom, who is frail but content among his books and solitude. On the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary, Geoff receives a package from Switzerland informing him that global warming has unearthed the frozen remains of Katya, his love of 50 years ago who died when she fell into a glacier crevice. The news sends Geoff into a quiet depression so deep that Kate begins to imagine that she's been little more than leftovers for the past four and a half decades.  

At the root of this small domestic drama lurk several of life's big fears: regret, doubt, fate, and what happens when you ask questions whose answers you don't really want to know. Kate disclaims feelings of jealousy toward a woman who died before she and Geoff ever met, but this is a fiction more wispy than the slides of Kayta she discovers deteriorating in boxes tucked away in the loft. Dare she ask the question that's tearing her apart:  If Katya had lived, would Geoff have married her? Such questions, of course, are the ultimate Pandora's Box monster. How does one compete against a ghost? How does one accept Geoff's attempt to defuse a no-win situation by reminding Kate that Katya did die and that it is pointless to muse over hypothetical questions?

The film covers the week leading up to the Mercers' anniversary fete. Geoff and Kate perform a pas de deux upon a stage drenched in the symbolic grayness of a late Norfolk autumn. Circumstantial pathos is made heavier by the subtle but powerful performances from Courtenay and Rampling. Is Geoff's gloom a natural response? Depression over his own impending mortality? Regret for a path never completed? Rampling is even more incredible; she's a seething volcano hidden behind a mask of stolidity.

45 Years comes across as the kind of play Eugene O' Neill would have written had he been English. Make no mistake; this movie is very English in the ways in which emotions are buttoned-down, much is left unsaid, and characters subject themselves to inner torture rather than beat their breasts and rage against the Fates. It is based upon the David Constantine short story "In Another Country" and stretches to 95 minutes by allowing the camera to linger over landscapes, faces, and skies. Impatient viewers might find the pace too languid, but I found it moving and powerful and it's closing scene almost too painful to watch. This is a film for adults–not because of its ridiculous R rating, but because one needs to have lived to quake at its terrors. Rob Weir

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