Dir: Andrew Haigh
Artificial Eye, 2015, UK
Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay
Lifelong happiness marred by the ghost of girlfriends past.
Andrew Haigh, one of Yorkshire’s finest working filmmakers, emerged in 2009 after a series of short films with the documentary Greek Pete, which explores the lifestyle of a London rent-boy. It did well enough to establish his name, and he followed it up in stunning fashion with award winning Weekend (2011), which is God-tier queer cinema. The story is as follows: after meeting in a Nottingham night club, Russell and Glen teeter on the brink of true love, inescapably drawn together while being painfully mindful of the fact that Glen is preparing to leave for Oregon just a few days later. Their doomed romance is fictional, but is brought to life by documentary realism, intimate performances, and immersive cinematography; it’s at once a burst of life and a melancholy sigh.
That central aspect – happiness threatened by a deadline – may well become a trope for Haigh, as it’s something he takes to heightened stakes in his new drama 45 Years. At the beginning, Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) receives a letter informing him that the body of his sweetheart of yore, Katya, has been found frozen in a Swiss glacier, half a century after she plummeted to her death. The timing couldn’t have been any worse, because his 45th wedding anniversary with the ostensibly happy Kate (Charlotte Rampling) is five days ahead. Through the fault of neither of them, Kate was obviously only a second choice for Geoff, and now that the memories of Katya have come rushing back, their entire marriage is cast under scrutiny: was Kate ever really enough? Does Geoff still wish he had married Katya instead? If not, then why does he seem to have fallen into a funk, making frequent reference to his lost lover, and turning his attention to self-destructive habits?
As with Weekend, Haigh chooses not to take a particular side in the argument, preferring simply to have his camera observe it while the whole charade runs its course, but telling things primarily from Kate’s perspective nonetheless. This way, the anxieties of the whole situation are exacerbated by rooting the viewer within her uncertainty, and by emphasising the weight of the anniversary party (of which she is the chief organiser) through the suggestion that it may collapse in a hysterical, life-wrecking fashion. But far from being First World Problems: The Movie, as many romances are doubtlessly deemed amongst the cynics, 45 Years realises that its central issue isn’t worthy of all-encompassing melodrama, so it starts small and burrows deep into its characters’ psyches. From this, the movie reaches slow-burning dread, finally reaching a payoff that is practically unbearable.
What enhances the film’s down-to-earth sense of catastrophe is the Britishness of its characters and settings. Between them, Kate and Geoff are caught somewhere between middle and lower-class; they live in a reasonably-sized country house with a considerable amount of possessions, although the types of possessions never suggest that the characters have money pouring from their eyes. Played by an actress from Essex, Kate in particular prefers to maintain an affable presentation, while her husband remains quiet and well-spoken before emerging from the working men’s club at four in the afternoon, effing and blinding, with Courtenay’s Hull accent strengthening the more his character drinks. But this precarious middleground plays the same trick as Weekend, wherein the characters may be predominantly classifiable as one thing, but have dozens of chinks and chunks from various other walks of life, essentially replacing the heavy labels of stereotypes with genuine humanity. This is why 45 Years has such a strong power of intimacy, and why I left the cinema choked, with the film’s monumental sadness hanging over me for hours afterwards. And that’s a rare thing.
- L. G. Ball