Published Sep 13, 2015Taking a break from making conversation dramas about dull and stereotypical (and interchangeably muscled, hairless and naked) homosexuals that occasionally opine about glib undergraduate queer theory, Andrew Haigh makes a bid for art-house legitimacy with 45 Years, an adaptation of the highly regarded title story of David Constantine's short story collection, In Another Country. It's an appropriate project for his particular style; he's restrained and observational, often allowing his actors time to work through a reaction with nuance, which suits Constantine's piece about the complexities and messiness of life.
Much of 45 Years unfolds beneath the surface. Leading up to their 45th anniversary — an event being planned by the intelligent but somewhat judgmental Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) — Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) receives an unexpected letter. It's advising him that the dead body of a younger love interest, presumably the love of his life, has been found preserved in a glacier (a metaphor that would have derailed a lesser work with its laboured obviousness).
Initially, there's an anticlimactic sense about it all. Kate and Geoff have been married for nearly half-a-century and still have a strong relationship, so what's the big deal? Kate's worry, portrayed by Rampling with a slight nervous energy that breaks the even-keeled confidence established early on, seems a tad silly and unfounded, and her clinginess and guiding questions are outdone by her decision to monitor her husband's action and whereabouts. But, when she finds him in the attic looking at old photos and finds him wandering into town without a clear purpose, his passive sense of shame and guilt starts to show.
Although viewers will project feelings onto the characters, and Rampling does an exemplary job of presenting subdued disappointment, anger and concern, Haigh refuses to tip his hat; he doesn't impose judgment or a perspective on the action, mostly following his characters around town, or walking the dog, when not stepping back to frame them against an expansive, grey-blue country landscape.
The fact that this dead woman is frozen in time is quite telling, however. This image and metaphor ultimately suggests that these feelings, the feelings he had for another woman before meeting Kate, are as vital now as they were then. And if this is the case, have the last 45 years been a lie, or an act of compromise?
The mystery of it all is the most effective aspect of this very subtle and contained character drama. Haigh never insists on spelling out specifically why these characters are reacting the way they are, and Geoff is mostly perceived through Kate's curious gaze. If there's a fault to 45 Years, it's that we don't get enough time with the couple before this news is revealed to get a full appreciation of just how erratic Geoff's behaviour might be.
What we do get a sense of is the fragility of love. If it's something different to both parts of a seemingly ideal couple, something perceived differently and something that can be sullied by the knowledge of a less-than-romantic inception, then what does it all mean? Even though Haigh's Weekend was a rather trite bit of pretence overrated by heteronormative voyeurs, it similarly tackled this idea of connection through disparity, looking for meaning in the development of emotional connection and the divisions — and social conventions — that make romantic love a manufactured lie.
It's a thorny and well-trodden area of interest, but one that isn't defined with great clarity. With 45 Years, Haigh is getting closer to saying something substantive and manages to inspire thought, even for those that may read the text as an example of female neuroses. It's a beautifully shot and well-acted film that shows rather than tells, which is something we need more of in cinema.