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45 Years is a story that begins with quiet comfort and ends with quiet alienation. Parts of it are moving, even suspenseful, and yet writer/director Andrew Haigh mostly keeps the drama in the minds of his two lead characters. Haigh is no stranger deep studies of everyday romance: his breakout film Weekend drips with insight, and the HBO series Looking is more astute about modern relationships than anything else on television. But while Looking and Weekend are about young gay men, 45 Years is about a straight couple that’s well past retirement age. Indeed, part of the point of 45 Years is that no matter the age, couples can experience genuine passion and depth of feeling. Haigh is not cruel, exactly – the point of the film is not to dismantle relationships – yet his inexorable conclusions are brutal.

The couple in question is Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay). When we first meet Kate, she is walking her dog in the English countryside. She picks up her mail, and hands Geoff a later. Its contents shock him: he learns that the body of his ex-lover Katya has been found in the Swiss Alps. Kate knew about Katya, of course – Geoff met Kate shortly after her disappearance – and yet she did not grasp what the dead woman meant to her husband.

Haigh regards the couple as they spend the week together: while Geoff mourns, Kate must prepare for the forty-fifth anniversary party they have planned the following weekend. Kate keeps her distance from Geoff, trying to remain patient, except his behavior becomes erratic and careless. The news creates a fissure in their life of domesticity, to the point where they might call off the party.

At first, Haigh uses ritual to define their marriage. Kate and Geoff have few surprises for each other, and take comfort in second-guessing what the other might do or say. He films them with respect, usually at a medium shot and with natural light, as if the camera is a guest in their home. There is a long take where Kate, unsure how to react to Geoff, decides to make a cup of tea, and the only hint of what she’s thinking is in how quickly she moves. The performances in 45 Years are marvels of subtlety. Rampling may be seventy years old, and yet her face can suggest a different age depending on how Kate feels. In one moment, she is full of life – looking decades younger – and in others she looks like a sullen corpse.

Through Courtenay’s fearless performance, Geoff mourns with a mix of loss and unbecoming petulance. He reverts to youth since that is how he remembers Katya, so he acts out while also hiding his true feelings. There is an oddly powerful sequence in where Geoff reverts to fanciful romance with Kate, including some bedroom activity, and yet this is another form of mourning. Haigh never lets these characters off the hook, which is why 45 Years unfolds with such command of tone and tension.

Since their relationship is longer than many lifetimes, a conceit that is not exactly sexy, this film is a tough sell. Still, the important thing that Haigh and his actors internalize is that this marriage is both forty-five years long and forty-five years deep. Like Michael Haneke’s Amour, 45 Years has the wisdom to see that the point of long relationships is to observe and be observed. When Geoff no longer has the use for that, it is disturbing to Kate and the audience by extension. Haigh ends with a long, wordless scene where we watch Geoff and Kate in public. The implications of the shot are more painful than heartbreaking. 45 Years shows us that as we get older with a partner, our ability to be surprised is the best part, and the worst.

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