45 Years

February 19, 2016
Charlotte Rampling in '45 Years' (2015)
Charlotte Rampling in '45 Years' (2015)

It’s with some reluctance that I turn to Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years as the second review for this week, as it’s hard to recommend a film that is little more than a slow, grinding, self-absorbed portrait of old age and its miseries. There are, at least, a few psychological subtleties to be unravelled, whereas my other options were beyond the pale.

The cult passion for Ben Stiller’s Zoolander leaves me mystified, as Zoolander 2 must be one of the most incoherent, un-funny comedies I’ve ever seen. Then there is How to be Single, another sentimental sex-and-sentiment comedy with characters that make one choke on sight. I’m beginning to think that watching anything else with Ben Stiller or Rebel Wilson is going to force me to retire to a monastery.

The final possibility was Risen, a rewriting of the New Testament, in which Joseph Fiennes plays a Roman tribune who finds God. Or more precisely, he finds Cliff Curtis, who scores the ego-expanding role of Jesus Christ. It could’ve been a lot worse.

Back in 45 Years I began to wonder if this was the name of the film or the running time. My mistake was to go in with high expectations, lured by the presence of Charlotte Rampling, who has been one of the cinema’s most beguiling presences ever since Georgy Girl (1966).

Normally Rampling has a kind of ageless appeal, but in 45 Years she is every bit of 70, and oh so English. The setting is a rural town in Britain. Rampling plays the role of a retired teacher, Kate Mercer, who is preparing for a party to celebrate her 45th wedding anniversary. Her husband, Geoff, is even slower and creakier, merely going through the motions of life, with its daily rituals.

Geoff is played by Tom Courtenay, who made his name as a rebellious youth in films such as John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (1963). Courtenay is 79 this year, and seems to be under instructions to make it seem like 99.

As preparations for the party are slowly proceeding, Geoff receives a letter from Switzerland informing him that his old girlfriend, Katya, has been found preserved in a glacier. She had slipped into a crack in the ice during a hiking trip in the mountains in the years before Geoff met Kate. He is tempted to go to Switzerland to see the body, even though he knows it’s not very practical given his present state of health.

For Kate it is as if a ghost has appeared in their relationship. On the eve of a momentous celebration, Geoff is being drawn back into the past, obsessing over the girlfriend he lost so suddenly. When a relationship is severed in such dramatic fashion, it may be that the wound never heals. By contrast, after 45 years together, Geoff and Kate have become almost indivisible. Or so it seemed.

That’s basically the story. The bulk of the movie revolves around the small incidents associated with Geoff’s sudden preoccupation, and the tension that seeps into the marriage. There are a few minor twists, and one striking discovery, but nothing that will set viewers’ pulses racing.

The pace is somnolent from start to finish. Our only distraction lies in watching Kate crack up by degrees while holding it together for social purposes. Geoff remains as opaque as a sleepwalker, guarding his thoughts from his wife and from us.

There is none of the brutal clarity of Michael Haneke’s L’Amour (2012), which saw two old people dying every day in their Parisian apartment. 45 Years is as grey as a November day in England, and just as depressing.

45 Years
Directed by Andrew Haigh
Written by Andrew Haigh, after a short story by David Constantine
Starring Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, Dolly Wells, David Sibley
UK, rated M, 95 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 20th February, 2016.