Review: Long-held secret threatens to shatter a marriage in '45 Years'
Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay deliver a master class in brilliant, low key and quietly intense performances in the thought-provoking marital drama "45 Years" (screened during AFI FEST 2015 and opening in cities nationwide Jan. 29).
In short: Just days before Kate (Rampling) and Geoff's (Courtenay) 45th wedding anniversary, a tragedy in the distant past emerges to threaten the marriage of the long-married couple. (Watch the trailer)
The brilliance of "45 Years" is its simplicity. Merely the news that the perfectly preserved body of Geoff's ex-girlfriend (who he had dated before he met Kate) had been discovered in the Alps is enough to upend Kate and Geoff's quiet retired lifestyle. The revelation is a seed that neither Kate nor Geoff can ignore -- a seed that takes root, slowly but gradually overwhelming their focus.
This is character-driven drama at its best: while the married couple attempts to stoically move forward with their anniversary party plans, they cannot help but increasingly dwell on the sudden revelation of an unspoken part of Geoff's past. It's an irresistible itch that neither can help but scratch -- a curiosity that disturbs their comfortable routine and ultimately threatens to redefine their entire relationship altogether.
While the premise is simple, "45 Years" gives no easy out for Kate and Geoff. Kate knows she cannot be too jealous of Geoff's ex-girlfriend simply because the accident happened years before Kate met Geoff. The accident happened 50 years ago, but Geoff is almost instantly fixated - he's clearly more preoccupied with the events surrounding a long-dead girlfriend than he is remotely interested in the celebration of his 45th anniversary.
One of the great cinematic themes is identity, and Kate and Geoff are forced to reexamine the very identity of their entire relationship. Neither Kate nor Geoff can do anything to change what happened 50 years ago - but writer-director Andrew Haigh crafts a story that allows this echo from the past to utterly disturb Kate and Geoff's present. As secrets of the past are revealed, the frustrations, resentment and pain felt by Kate and Geoff are absolutely understandable. This is a true conversation starter of a film as "45 Years" presents a dilemma with no obvious answer and no obvious bad guy.
Rampling and Courtenay are perfect. Their rapport makes it easy to see how they got along comfortably through the years -- but as the dramatic screws tighten on their characters, Rampling and Courtenay shine. Their unstated performances do not rely on melodramatic screaming -- these two instead create grounded characters rattled to their cores as they struggle to deal with the past while trying to endure the present. Rampling deserves every acclaim for her low-key but heartbreaking performance as a wife trying to move forward while each new revelation of the distant past tragedy is like a knife slowly being twisted in her heart.
Final verdict: This quietly devastating marital drama takes a simple premise and fleshes it out into a rich and complex problem with no simple solution. And the final scene is arguably among the most powerful and quietly staggering closing moments of any film released in 2015.
"45 Years" screened during AFI FEST 2015 and expands to additional cities nationwide Jan. 29 and is rated R for language and brief sexuality.