The opening credits of Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years (2015) scroll through a black screen, over which can be heard a succession of rhythmic clicks. The unidentified sounds soon give way to the quiet twitter of birds over a long shot, across a field in Norfolk, England, of a pretty old house that sits all alone. There lives a couple, Geoff and Kate (Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling), whose long marriage will be celebrated five days hence with a big bash—and profoundly unsettled in the interim by the arrival of a letter for Geoff. The two go about their well-worn but noticeably separate routines: walking the dog, fixing a broken toilet, lunching with friends, wrapping up party preparations. Those clicks, it turns out, prefigure a watershed discovery that will shatter the assumptions of at least one of these two about the foundations of their companionable marriage.
The letter informs Geoff that the body of a former lover, Katya, who fell down a fissure in a rock while the two were on a trip through Switzerland, has been found preserved as she was fifty years ago in ice now melted by climate change. Haigh adapted 45 Years from British writer David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country,” which was inspired in turn by an astonishing real-life event the author learned about while in France: a young mountaineer fell down a crevasse in Chamonix in the 1930s; seventy years later, his perfectly preserved body was recovered and shown to his son. In his eighties by then, the son was “tipped . . . towards insanity,” according to an interview with Constantine in the Telegraph.
That might be someone’s idea of a horror movie, but this is not, strictly speaking, a genre film. Haigh has strong roots in the realism that has run a deep vein through British cinema, from the Documentary Film Movement of the thirties and forties through the post–World War II kitchen-sink dramas to the class-based films of Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, and others. But he practices an artful realism that he’s made entirely his own. With his debut feature, Greek Pete (2009), about a year in the life of a rent boy, his wistful 2011 movie Weekend, a beautifully observed brief encounter between two gay strangers, and his 2014–15 HBO drama Looking, Haigh planted his flag proudly in queer cinema. Although 45 Years shifts its focus to a straight couple, Haigh has called it a sequel to Weekend, and indeed, like the earlier film, this one keeps its head close to the ebb and flow of people going about their business, letting the momentous percolate through the mundane. If the ice and the fissure and the juxtaposition of lovers named Kate and Katya in 45 Years also make pretty sensational metaphors for unfinished marital business, Haigh isn’t one to wave big signifiers around. Geoff grows a little unhinged, but no more than you’d expect from a man who has just been given unsettling news about someone he loved long ago. A prosaic, no-nonsense woman whose wardrobe relies heavily on sensible cardies and hooded mackintoshes, Kate has known of Katya’s existence from the beginning, and at first she wonders why her husband seems so thoroughly winded by the news. “I can hardly be cross with something that happened before we existed, can I?” she says. But the slight quaver in that “can I?” releases the deep wellsprings of unease that will become this movie’s subject, and that subtly yet crucially shift its center of gravity from Geoff in Constantine’s story to Kate in Haigh’s. That’s an unusual psychological move, if only because movie narrative more commonly focuses on a nominal free spirit than on the one who may have held that spirit in check.
In fact, Kate is profoundly thrown, but she doesn’t know that yet, and anyway she’s the type to get on with things. Life flows on as before, only now with telling interruptions. Kate embarks on some mild espionage; she and Geoff do a sweetly conciliatory slow dance around their comfortable living room; they repair to bed for a bout of affectionate but slightly desperate sex, as graphic and free of aesthetic dressing as it is in all of Haigh’s films. Geoff and Kate each make tragicomically furtive expeditions to the “loft,” that venerable attic where British homeowners store their pasts, and where those pasts often lie forgotten until someone dies. Not in this loft: those clicks will reveal something Kate didn’t know about Geoff’s history with Katya. The news presses on a long-ignored wound, and though there’s no shouting, no histrionics, no storming out, a line has been breached as she and Geoff begin to mull over their past and pay attention to the fact that their living room boasts no family photos.
45 Years keeps faith with the quotidian, scaled-down impulse that powers Constantine’s twelve-page story. But where Constantine places the young hikers around World War II (Katya was Jewish), which makes the older couple elderly in his story’s present, Haigh has built a significantly different history for Kate and Geoff. They met back in the late sixties, perhaps too soon after Katya’s death. Pairing Courtenay with Rampling as alumni of the British sixties was an ingenious move, and not just because of the skillful pas de deux they execute as a comfortably welded couple ignoring subtle signs of incompatibility. As actors, the two belong to roughly the same generation, and their early careers spanned the same profound change in England’s class structure and cultural weather, but in different ways. For older moviegoers, the Yorkshire-born-and-bred Courtenay (Haigh himself was born in the Yorkshire town of Harrogate) comes identified with post–World War II movies like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Billy Liar (1963), in which he played angry young men trapped in working-class misery. In 45 Years, Geoff is still stuck in the sixties. He has become, if not an angry old man, then certainly a grumpy one, still fulminating against the “racists” and “fascists” he sees around him in the couple’s staidly bourgeois town of Norwich, in East Anglia.
Rampling, a former model as well as an actress, remains a sexy if patrician symbol of the swinging sixties (Georgy Girl). Haigh cunningly alludes to this: “You were a knockout!” Geoff recalls of his first sighting of his wife. That she was, but the subtly assessing intelligence tempered by an alluring reserve that has kept Rampling in steady work into her seventies (among other recent triumphs, she has become a muse for the French filmmaker François Ozon) is fully engaged here in Kate’s dawning awareness that a stake has been driven through her marriage. Almost without moving a muscle, Rampling, who won multiple best actress awards for her performance in 45 Years, slowly morphs from a poised, slightly imperious wife with a touch of the ballbuster to a woman metabolizing a disturbing new inner life and finally to a woman destroyed.
Haigh’s comfort zone may lie within British realism (he shot Weekend around the tower block that replaced the home of Albert Finney’s philandering factory worker in Karel Reisz’s 1960 kitchen-sink classic Saturday Night and Sunday Morning). But the forty-four-year-old director belongs to a younger generation of artists who are less obsessed with, and certainly less bothered by, the rigid class boundaries that still drive the sensibilities of older filmmakers like Loach and Leigh. 45 Years, one of the inexplicably few films (unless you count The Big Chill) to explore the world of aging boomers, is at once a bleaker and a more compassionate movie than Leigh’s skin-deep 2010 boomer drama Another Year.
Not that Haigh concedes an inch to American optimism; he has a robust streak of the romantic fatalism that remains a key ingredient of melodrama, to say nothing of British DNA. Kate and Geoff come to appear as prisoners not only of their hidden past but of the sharply differing temperaments that first attracted them, and that now threaten to drive them apart. Haigh drizzles this growing abyss into our consciousness as it arrives in Kate’s. In one of the many long shots he favors, we see Kate and Geoff through their window, talking in their garden. We can’t hear what they’re saying, but tension crackles between them like an electrical current.
Landscape, too, is critical: the flat, winterized Norfolk terrain underscores Kate and Geoff’s struggle to recover equilibrium. The soundtrack, which embeds the sixties pop songs Kate chooses for the party in the action, offers its own elegiac commentary on their plight. Once the bomb has quietly dropped, the pacing barely alters, aside from a slight but incremental ruffling of the surface. The final turn of the screw itself can seem inconsequential if you’re not paying attention.
Haigh is always an adroit manipulator of time: if Weekend distilled a lifetime of longing into forty-eight hours, 45 Years shows how half a century can turn to ash in a few short days. From a different angle, in Weekend, two strangers, who seem to be chatting about nothing and everything, achieve intense intimacy in those two days; in 45 Years, it takes decades of familiarity for two people to discover that they’re strangers. As in many marriages cemented—or undone—by affection or sheer habit, Kate and Geoff grew into one another like adjacent trees whose branches have intertwined while the roots remain separate. Is Geoff a superannuated child in need of coddling by his sensible wife, or was he cheated, through Katya’s death, of the more free-spirited life he craved? Is Kate no more than an uncomprehending put-down artist who feels obliged to point out that her husband has made multiple fruitless efforts to read Kierkegaard, or is she exactly the woman he needs to keep him down-to-earth? Haigh won’t tip his hand, though you may draw your own conclusions from the wind rustling through dead leaves that haven’t yet dropped from a tree, or the inexplicably desolate cries of children at play.
Toward the end of 45 Years, Kate and Geoff strike a bargain that may be read as a retreat to the status quo. From a distance, the long-awaited anniversary celebration is a roaring success that goes off like clockwork. But if the song for the couple’s opening dance—a Platters version of a much-covered number about love and loss—doesn’t unravel you, the close-up that lingers on the quivering vulnerability in Rampling’s face surely will. In that look lies the knowledge that we all remain mysteries to each other, and that too much information may leave love’s wreckage in its wake.
Ella Taylor writes about film for NPR.org, Fandor, and other outlets, and teaches in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.