Much about 45 Years makes it clear that it’s adapted from a short story, but nothing more than the moment when Kate (Charlotte Rampling) is surveying the hall in which she intends to host her 45th wedding anniversary party at the end of the week. “So full of history, you see?” says the man showing her the room, which after the English fashion is old and stately. “Like a good marriage.” That line is a cipher for the story, the thread you tug and hold your breath to see if the whole thing will unravel.
Kate and her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are just on the cusp of old age, retired but well-off and childless and still very fond of one another. The film takes place over the week leading up to their anniversary celebration, and it’s filled with the quiet shorthand that long-married couples use with one another, with a constant classical music backdrop. For much of the film, director Andrew Haight contrasts very wide shots of the fields and landscapes around Kate and Geoff’s house with beautifully-lit interior shots, often through doorframes, in nearly every room of the house. It's as if we’re seeing everywhere they’ve invested with their lives before the storm hits.
And hit it does, though you might almost miss it if you aren’t paying attention to their faces. Geoff receives a letter one morning that, despite his rusty German, he realizes carries startling news: in Switzerland, buried beneath ice, his former girlfriend Katya—who fell and disappeared before he even met Kate—has been found. Katya and Geoff had been pretending to be married to make travel easier, so he’s listed as her next of kin. Would he be able to come identify the body?
Kate knew dimly of Katya’s existence, but they hadn’t talked about her much over their decades of marriage. Both of them are shaken, and as Geoff tells more of his memories of the trip where Katya disappeared, you can see something in Kate recede, just a tad. Over the course of days, the couple tries to support one another, moving back toward some bad habits while still moving toward their celebration and the future ahead of them. Nothing monumental has changed, but things are moving around, leaving previously-smoothed edges jagged—particularly when Kate realizes what’s been held back.
Their inner turmoil is the heart of the story, in a film that calls to mind both Mike Leigh’s Another Year and Sarah Polley’s Away From Her. Given how common the experience is to many people’s lives, it’s surprising how few movies and TV shows take marriage as their central focus. Certainly the turning points—romance, adultery, divorce, death—are easier to turn into the stuff of drama.
But when a long-term marriage exists in a movie or TV show, it’s more often the backdrop for some other story. Many stories treat marriage as if it’s a state of being, like your employment or your city of residence, or like Katya, “frozen in time”—another of the film’s pointers toward its source, David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country.” In reality, a marriage is a lot more like a dynamic living being, comprised of but somehow larger than the people in the relationship, sustained to the degree the partners allow it. Marrying another person means weaving your story into theirs and letting the two narratives intertwine. In a sense, you deposit your consciousness and memories into another person. Even your individual experiences are parts of that story.
As Geoff tells Kate the story of his life with Katya, their conversation is flecked with references to the experiences they—Kate and Geoff—have had together since. But the longer Katya’s spectre hangs over Kate, the more she feels that something has fundamentally shifted. There is story that hasn’t, and really can’t, be woven into their lives together, and the ground underneath her shifts.
In portraying this woman—placid on the outside, but rattled to the core—Charlotte Rampling defines an “understated” performance, with eyes that are either inscrutable or saying a hundred things at once. With her at the center of the story, we understand that the living being of their marriage can never be the same, even though neither party has done anything wrong. It’s a point of crisis into which 45 Years dives, but not an ordinary one. The true measure of a marriage never is.
45 Years is rated R for language and brief sexuality. There are a handful of strong expletives in keeping with the emotional weight of what’s happening, and the married couple has sex, sort of, without nudity shown. Characters drink and smoke.
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today’s chief film critic and an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City. She is co-author, with Robert Joustra, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Eerdmans, May 2016). She tweets @alissamarie.