45 Years - review
A freak discovery destroys the stability of an apparently joyful marriage.
Author David Constantine likes to tell a story that he claims inspired In Another Country, the short story on which the film 45 Years is based. A few years back, he says, a retreating glacier revealed the body of a young French guide, preserved there since the 1920s. The guide’s son — by then a frail, elderly man — was sent to identify the body. At the sight of his father, still as young as the day he died, the old man was driven insane.
In 45 Years, a long-married couple receive news that the ice-conserved body of Katya, the husband’s former girlfriend, has been discovered in the Swiss Alps, where it has lain undisturbed since 1962. The result isn’t madness, but something that comes dangerously close: a gathering avalanche of emotions that starts with small, ominous rumbles — Geoff (Tom Courtenay) unthinkingly referring to his lost love as “my Katya”, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) making a snide dig about Geoff’s failure to finish Kierkegaard — and quickly gains momentum.
Their entire marriage has cracked apart. In an instant, all the sureties of a long and happy relationship are gone.
By the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary, their entire marriage has cracked apart. In an instant, all the sureties of a long and apparently happy relationship are gone. Geoff’s moodiness, Kate’s dog obsession, the couple’s childlessness — were there reasons, ever present but unspoken, for everything?
There’s nothing overtly supernatural in 45 Years, but director Andrew Haigh (whose first feature, Weekend, found small-scale success in 2011) layers the relationship drama with unsettling callbacks to ghost stories and horror.
Geoff and Kate’s house sits in a remote corner of Norfolk, blanketed in thick, spectral fog; at night, when the wind picks up, the old wooden walls creak and groan. In one particularly eerie scene, Kate wakes in the early hours to the sound of footsteps above her, as Geoff roots through the remnants of his former life.
Later, Kate climbs the ladder into the attic herself, and finds a box of slide photos from Geoff and Katya’s fateful alpine trip.
Projected onto a diaphanous white sheet, images of Katya flutter in and out of focus as Kate looks on, transfixed. Kate senses Katya’s presence everywhere she turns. The realisation that she’d been lurking there for every one of the past 45 years is even more horrifying.
45 Years could have been remarkable with other actors in the roles, but Courtenay and Rampling bring to it something special. Both burst onto cinema screens in the 60s in a blaze of youth and anger and era-defining cool, he in British New Wave landmarks Billy Liar and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, she as the hedonistic Meredith in Georgy Girl.
In 45 Years, Kate and Geoff have few photos to remind them of their youth, but the people that Rampling and Courtenay were are all too real. The actors’ past lives add a bittersweet subtext to a story of time and memory twisted into poisonous nostalgia.