Days before Geoff and Kate Mercer are to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary, they receive some strange news. A letter for Geoff turns up at their country home, telling him, in German, that the body of his ex-girlfriend has been discovered frozen into a glacier in Switzerland. In the early 1960s, he had been hiking with her in the Swiss Alps when she slipped down a gap in the mountain – the melting ice only now revealing her final resting place.
So begins 45 Years, a superb British drama from director Andrew Haigh, which charts the week-long build up to the Mercers’ anniversary party and the toxic impact the revelation from Switzerland has on their marriage. Haigh has enlisted Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling to play Geoff and Kate. It’s a decision that pays off handsomely as his two stars put in performances that must surely rank among their very best.
Courtenay, with his unshaven face and crumpled bearing, manages to make Geoff an engaging presence in the film, despite the fact he is, essentially, an unappealing and self-absorbed old sod. Rampling is every bit as good as Kate, her calm façade gradually cracking as it becomes clear that Geoff’s heart has, in some ways, also been frozen in the glacier for all the time she has known him.
In its dissection of a long relationship reaching a sudden crisis point, 45 Years is reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s Amour. It’s also comparable to the work of Joanna Hogg, whose art-house dramas dissect the tensions underlying apparently comfortable middle-class British life. Yet, despite these connections, Haigh undoubtedly has his own distinctive flair for filmmaking.
Discomfiting and quietly powerful, 45 Years is a more complex film than it first appears. The slow dislocation of the Mercers’ marriage is made engrossing and believable thanks not only to the performances of the leads but also to a well-judged, spare script and Haigh’s eye for arresting cinematic images. He cuts between long shots of the characters moving through windswept countryside and close-ups that are held for longer than other directors might dare. Other scenes are shot from odd angles (at one point Geoff is obscured by his bookshelf) and there are unsettling visual moments, such as when Kate’s face is reflected in a slideshow.
We are given a glimpse of Geoff and Kate’s former happiness, as they dance together in their living room, recreating the moment they met in a dance hall. It’s a scene that echoes in the closing moments. They dance once again, but this time stiffly. Bathed in blue light, Kate shimmers amid the darkness. She, like her love for her husband, has become a kind of ghost.
This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (28/8/15).
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