I’m fascinated by the past. I read history books constantly and even listen to history podcasts. And it’s not just actual history that interests me, but my own as well. Who’s to say I couldn’t learn as much by examining events in my life as I could from reading about the scramble for Africa (my current “boring book,” as my wife calls them)? As you can imagine from that aside, my wife – while no philistine – is less interested in such topics. Watching 45 Years prompted an pretty interesting conversation between us, as it deals almost exclusively with what one event from a husband’s past might mean not only to him, but to his wife and to them as a couple.
That sounds more dramatic than 45 Years actually is. This isn’t something like Michael Haneke’s Cache (although at times it feels like a Haneke film) in that there’s a secret to be found out. Rather there’s something in Geoff’s (Tom Courtenay) past that really didn’t go into fully with Kate (Charlotte Rampling), his wife of forty-five years. When the body of Katya, his previous girlfriend – again, don’t go into this looking for foul play or a mystery; her death is from (mostly) natural causes – is recovered from a crevasse in the Alps, the question of WHY Geoff never spoke of her much becomes an obsession of Kate’s. The fact that their forty-fifth anniversary dinner is in five days compounds this problem, as it’s unclear if either Geoff or Kate will be emotionally ready for it.
Rampling and Courtenay are both fantastic, but they’re given plenty of opportunity by screenwriter/director Andrew Haigh. Haigh came up as an editor (working on Ridley Scott action films, incongruously enough) and his training here shows. In addition to shooting his actors in every combination imaginable – close-ups, two shots, shot/reverse shot – he allows them to work through their characters in real time by using a large number of long takes. These aren’t showy either, but that doesn’t mean he misses Kate glaring at Geoff in a rearview mirror, or her eyes open in the middle of the night as an out of focus Geoff tries to sneak out of bed to look at old photos.
I can’t go any further without talking about how perfectly British 45 Years is. Three years ago, before I moved to the UK, I would have regarded some of its very true-to-life details as the interesting ephemera that come with watching a foreign film (“so that’s how you pay your electric bill in Italy!”). Now, those same details make it feel so realistic and the characters so lived in that the whole thing improves. Combined with the long takes, its verisimilitude makes it almost documentary-esque in moments.
I can see why people compare 45 Years to Amour or other films by Haneke, despite the former’s lack of drama. But to me the comparison that seems more apt is Gone Girl. Although it approaches it from a very different perspective, 45 Years asks how much we know – or want to know – about our spouses. Geoff’s preoccupation quickly becomes Kate’s obsession, and by the end she’s convinced that she’s better off not knowing what any of this means to him or to their marriage. But the film doesn’t stop there.
Instead, it pushes on to a conclusion every bit as challenging as Gone Girl’s. Its final scenes are open to interpretation. My wife thinks the film’s ambiguous ending speaks to a simple difference in temperament: just as Kate doesn’t understand how Geoff can simultaneously treasure forty-five years of marriage and grieve for an old love, she’s equally unsettled by how suddenly Geoff gets over his grief and delivers a command performance at their anniversary. I, however, see something a little darker. She’s asked Geoff to pretend he’s not grieving in order to put on a good show for their friends. But when his show is so good that no one could ever guess that he’s grieving at all, the obvious question becomes what else has he been faking, and for how long. 45 Years seems to think you’re better off not knowing.