45 Years July 8, 2016
Kate and Geoff Mercer's marriage has been an idyllic one. Or, at least, has been as idyllic as an everyday one can possibly be. They’ve been married for almost forty-five years, which isn't the result of settling or convenience but rather staggering, overflowing, everlasting love. They’re the couple you turn to when pondering what makes a marriage work. For the Mercers (who are blissfully childless), a well-maintained sex life, loving conversation, and genuine connection are all part of the equation.
Coming up is an anniversary party, during which they’ll be celebrating nearly five decades together. They would have preferred to hold one on their fortieth, but a major surgery (on the part of Geoff) kept them from elaborate festivities. So while they could easily continue living through their tranquil retired life without fuss to make their relationship mean something more, the Mercers are looking forward to putting their major achievement atop a pedestal.
But a revelation takes a toll on their plans. Just six days before the party, Geoff receives a letter. He learns that the body of a past lover has been found in the Swiss Alps. The news strikes a chord. Geoff was with the woman, named Katya, when she died. They were hiking through the area some five decades earlier, and she mistakenly fell through a crevasse, thus perishing and thought lost forever.
Katya wasn’t just some lady from Geoff’s past. Had she not tragically died, he would have married her. The news of her finding suddenly brings flashes of the life he could have lived had history not taken a turn. This leads Geoff to serious existential doubt, sending Kate into a fit of heartbreak. While she knows deep down that things will make way for the better and Geoff’s wondering of a different life is certainly a passing thing, the understanding that the life she currently knows might not have happened rattles her. “I think I was enough for you,” she tells Geoff at the height of the conflict. “I’m just not sure you do.”
45 Years, tenderly written and directed by Andrew Haigh, aims not to italicize its dramatic discord but to pragmatically portray marriage in its most ideal state, analyzing how a seemingly earth-shaking bombshell can affect an apparently solid relationship. No matter the level of trust and commitment in a union, always waiting in the wings is an event or an acknowledgment that could deter that supposed trust and commitment. By choosing to focus on a couple who has spent nearly a half of a century in the other’s presence, any sense of anguish is near nuclear in its impact.
45 Years is a delicate tightrope walk. Necessary is both the convincing portrayal of a lived-in marriage and also the tidal wave of disquiet that comes along with throwing a stick of metaphorical dynamite onto that marriage. Haigh gorgeously gives weight to the Mercers’ affinity not through standalone, bombastically memorable scenes but by observing them as they interact in the same ways that they have for years. Watching them eat breakfast together, listening in on their small talk. Seeing them interact in bed, whether they be cuddling or having predictable-but-comfortable sex. Noticing that they talk to each other not necessarily as cinematic lovers but as soulmates who simply enjoy being in each other’s company.
Haigh spends much time regarding Kate and Geoff before the Katya incident. So when things start getting messy — we can feel the drop in Kate’s stomach as she dreads that maybe she hasn’t been good enough for Geoff these last forty-five years — the hurt is plain and heartrending. That Haigh chooses a happy ending isn’t manipulative but realistic. For a couple who has seen the worst of each other for the entirety of their adult lives, it’s not unlikely for reconciliation to come out of the woodwork. Haunting, though, is the briefly jolting effect Katya’s sudden "appearance" has on the healthy marriage at the center.
As Kate and Geoff, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, respectively, are burdened with the strenuous task of persuading us that they’ve been in love since 1970. They do so not through orthodox performances but through unflashy embodiments. To say that they’re stupendous is an understatement. To deliver a scorching monologue is one thing. But to really and truly convince an audience that the person you’re portraying is you is hard to achieve. It is easy to believe that actors better at doing the former are more versatile. But Rampling and Courtenay (especially Rampling) strip down their dignified personae and become. In 45 Years, they summarize why their respective talents have remained so infatuating. Haigh knows how to prepare and ultimately bake the material, but Rampling and Courtenay are the ones that make the dish so exquisitely rich. This is one of the best movies of the decade. A