Looked at in a certain way, Andrew Haigh’s finely tuned 2015 drama 45 Years has the cold heart of a film noir plot. A secret sin committed almost five decades prior catches up with a man, sending ripples through his existence, exposing a hidden life no one knew he had. As this past becomes more prominent, it damages his current relationship, and there is no clear indication if he can either atone for his silence or if his partner can forget. Because the past is ever-present. Once you dig it up, you can’t bury it again.
In this case, the secret is the sin itself. It’s the fact that Geoff (Tom Courtenay, Billy Liar [review]) kept much of the details of his first love secret from his wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling, Life During Wartime [review]). The full details only begin to emerge under extraordinary circumstances just before their 45th wedding anniversary. Back in the 1960s, Geoff went climbing in the Swiss Alps with his beloved, only to lose her in the snow. During a recent thaw, the girl’s body was found in the ice, and because they had pretended to be married while on the road, Geoff is listed as her next of kin. This implies a far more intimate relationship than Kate ever realized, and as Geoff begins to lose himself in memory, Kate fears she is losing him, too.
Though, there is some evidence that she was losing him already. Old age has come to them differently, softening his thought processes even as she remains sharp. Courtenay is brilliant, alternately sympathetic and infuriating, there one minute and off in his own world the next. His thoughts of the lost woman obsess him, and he returns to youthful habits like a thief returning to crime. One of their friends describes him as “overly passionate about things,” and indeed, as he takes up smoking and starts to question the disappointing, straight life of his old friends, he starts to appear as an overgrown adolescent. Kate can only watch and wonder and try to pull him back in.
Andrew Haigh (Weekend) is taking on a lot here. He’s tossing out big questions. Based on a short story by David Constantine, 45 Years ponders how well we can really know a person, and what secrets we have a right to keep in reserve. Kate remains a rock even as her husband waivers. In terms of performance, Rampling is as present as Courtenay is absent. Yet, even in her stoicism, we see pain. Those quiet moments alone, as she contemplates the truth of the situation, we see the grief welling up in her. She’s already lost Geoff, she has to start the mourning process.
Or so one can surmise. Haigh avoids explanation, instead inviting us to consider what each spouse is going through. Haigh doesn’t layer on an orchestral score, preferring instead to use only in-world music. Sometimes it’s on the nose (“young girl get out of my mind,” Gary Puckett implores), other times it’s a product of nostalgia, empty in sentiment, reminding Geoff and Kate what they felt once upon a time. “Their” song is “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” a deceptive tune that sounds assured at first, but holds doubt (“all who love are blind”). How complacent have they become, how little has their taste changed? How much of the last 45 years has been a lie? Like a silent detective hunting out the truth, Rampling’s face says it all as Kate tries to clear that smoke put the puzzle together. She doesn’t know what to believe anymore. This is where Lol Crawley’s unassuming, stark cinematography becomes a powerful tool. The actors are the thing, and he and Haigh give them plenty of space, recalling in some scenes the Kitchen Sink school of British filmmaking popular when Courtenay and Rampling were starting out, but also more bucolic. They use the English countryside and its misty gray and lovely green to create a sort of limbo where the couple has gotten stuck, contrasting with the unseen, icy grave.
“We only get so many choices,” Geoff says at one point, a semblance of an excuse, implying that we only get so much love in our lives, as well. There is an existential dread in that belief, as if our decisions in life are like a genie’s three wishes. Make the wrong choices, and use them all up. But it’s not Geoff that we ultimately figure chose wrong--this is Kate’s story, really, not his, so it’s more her that we have to pity. Because she’ll never know if she devoted her life to a man that cared for her as much as she cared for him. The dead girl was always in their house, always in their bed, haunting her without Kate knowing. And we are left to hang there, as well, unsure of where this story will go next, our heroine trapped in the chilling final shot, not unlike her rival is trapped on a mountainside glacier, never to thaw.