On a Monday morning, six days before Kate (Rampling) and Geoff (Courtenay) are set to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary with a hundred of their closest friends, a letter arrives. Written in German, the letter explains how Geoff’s first love, Katja, has been found, perfectly preserved in ice, 50 years after she fell to her death during an Alpine hiking expedition with Geoff. “You know who I’m talking about?” he asks his wife. Yes, she nods, of course she remembers him telling her long ago about this first love, and her tragic death. It is part of his history. But it is threatening to rewrite their history, Kate’s and Geoff’s, this sudden reemergence of his Katja, and Kate’s dawning realization that this woman she never met has shaped the course of her marriage. If the letter is an earthquake, 45 Years is the story of its many aftershocks.
In his exquisite breakout feature, Weekend, writer/director Andrew Haigh caught the intensity of intimacy that can develop in a brief three days. Here, adapting David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country,” he shows how, in roughly as many days, 45 years of a shared life can rupture. And while we’re talking numbers: In a few minutes Haigh establishes a rich sense of Kate and Geoff’s routine, their particular patter – a necessary baseline to understand the aberrations that will occur over the days leading up to their anniversary party. Or are the aberrations just a return to form? The film becomes a kind of layered excavation of past lives, past selves, unshelved – the ones that smoked, or played piano, or said rude things to friends, before the bypass surgery quieted an agitative spirit. In a way, Katja’s unintentional gift is to reawaken in Geoff and Kate the dramatic, romantic uncertainty of youth, but it’s an exceptionally ill-timed gift, as they plan a party (including, crucially, its song playlist) meant to celebrate the incontestable rightness of their long union.
The film favors Kate’s perspective, and that’s a bold, even provocative decision to track not Geoff’s fresh pain but Kate’s bewilderment with his grief, which borders on impatience, especially considering Rampling’s reputation as a chilly actress. But Rampling isn’t chilly: She’s precise, and her brilliant precision is essential to a story that is as much about the words that aren’t spoken as the ones that are. She’s magnificent, in the most monumental sense of the word, and the rumply, agitated Courtenay – though not a mirror – is every bit her match.
“Subtle” is the watchword for this kind of arthouse film. That can be a backhanded compliment, a buyer-beware to attention-deficit audiences, but Haigh is really quite plain with his preoccupations: the constant tick-tock of time, and the illusion that in marriage two are melded into one. The sound design foregrounds a clock tower’s chiming and a paddleboat captain’s speech, half-heard absentmindedly by Kate, about a chance finding that has altered the landscape, while the camera deliberately frames Kate alone, with Geoff obscured by a bookshelf or unseen up in the attic, to emphasize his emotional remoteness.
Still, subtle is the right word for the film’s conclusion. The final shot had me scrutinizing the frame with the same obsessiveness as with Michael Haneke’s Caché, and it left me just as unmoored. I’ve seen the film twice now, and in my own estimation there is a moment – a tiny click – that changes everything. (A light spoiler here: I think it’s when Geoff does, with gusto, exactly the thing Kate has asked him to do.) But I know it won’t be the same click for everyone else. That, I suspect, is entirely Haigh’s intention. Be it 90 minutes, a weekend, or a lifetime spent in another’s company: Imperfectly is the best we can hope to understand anyone.
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