45 Years is the story of a marriage in crisis, a film that burns to a final moment of quiet devastation. It is a a domestic drama about secrets and realizations in which revelations arrive as subtly as they tend to in real life, and a creeping dread sets in that never quite comes to a Hollywood fever pitch. Director Andrew Haigh understands that what is happening in this relationship is not something that can be satisfied by an event or by true confrontation. There are no moments of histrionic overacting, only a kind of stillness that pushes us just to the brink of narrative climax before breaking away, pausing, and leaving the audience haunted by the very ghosts inserting themselves into every scene.
The effect is powerful, somewhere between tragedy and horror. It's hard to shake the impressions left by these characters, let alone their situation. We become close with Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling), a retired teacher who lives in the English countryside with her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay). We follow her as she moves methodically towards the celebration of their 45th anniversary together - without children, with the company of one another, with a lifetime of books and experiences and friends and shared memories. We understand that their existence together to this point has been comfortable, filled with trips into town, meanderings, and long walks with their dog. Haigh makes it easy to fall into their life, to understand the way that it has been. They are recognizable, likable, and Rampling in particular plays Kate in a way that makes you feel like you have known her forever. So when this picture is disrupted only minutes into the film by the arrival of a letter, the mention of a woman dead for half a century, we understand that something has already gone horribly wrong.
It is difficult to speak about the strange power of 45 Years without revealing too much, and harder to put into words what is transferred via the visual experience. Haigh has put together a strong argument for an economical use of scene and dialogue. The film is a lean 90 minutes in which not a an expression captured or word spoken feels out of place, unnecessary, or misleading. We are shown precisely what we need to see: a collection of small moments and interactions between these characters in a single week. The days pass, the hours pass, and the smallest changes register as mammoth. We are caught in the death rattle of something that is supposed to be permanent, and all we can do is play the bystander. Ultimately, what we are watching is a reminder that a marriage is, in part, the creation of a shared narrative and yet, that narrative is something that remains separate and distinct from a individual experience and existence. What it is that binds people together is a mystery, what it is that could drive them apart is usually just an upturning of one assumed constant.
The events of 45 Years are small, but the shifts in perspective they lead to are everything. We are seeing a complete film smart enough to know that it does not need to present a complete narrative. Sometimes, seeing the cracks form in the foundation is more than enough.