Two icons of British cinema, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, delve deep into the past in 45 Years*****, a beautiful film about ageing that nevertheless reminds us how the decisions of our youth never leave us.
Andrew Haigh’s film is both thriller and ghost story disguised as an enigmatic yet everyday domestic drama, a film of emotional highs and lows set against the physical flatness of the Norfolk broads and the personal mountains of yesteryear.
Rampling’s Kate Mercer, a retired local schoolteacher, is nervous about her approaching party to celebrate 45 years of marriage to Courtenay’s Jeff. We see that both of them are still vital and healthy if a little listless with their time. Amid troubles with the downstairs loo and arrangements for canapés, a letter arrives for Jeff which shatters their English village idyll.
The letter comes from Germany and reveals that the body of Katya, Jeff’s first love, has been found frozen in ice in the glacier where she went missing while the pair were on a climbing holiday in 1962. The news shocks Jeff into reminiscence while Kate pretends to be unperturbed, although with Rampling you always know when something is burning beneath her own famously glacial surface.
Set over the week leading up to the party (director Andrew Haigh’s debut feature was called Weekend and examined two young gay men on their first days together), this couple disinter the past. Fissures in their bourgeois comforts appear, yet they remain very British about it all, almost polite, yet simmering with feelings that they can’t, or won’t, quite express.
The stars and the quite repression may be British, but the style here feels classily European – Haigh is only on his second movie, but dare I say it, his elegant construction, quietly fierce confidence and, of course, his use of Rampling, bring to mind film makers such as Francois Ozon, Eric Rohmer, Ingmar Bergman, Mike Leigh and Woody Allen. There aren’t many young British directors about whom you can boldly make such comparisons, nor do many so comfortably deal with our middle-classes with such acuity.
By the end, the pressure on us all is nearly too much. Just as the layers of the years melted to reveal Katya in the ice, so do the subtleties of this film build until our eyes moisten – mine filled with tears of I don’t quite know what, nor for whom. It’s just that I know Kate and Jeff, we all know them, just as we know Rampling and Courtenay – these people are us, our parents, our family friends.
It would be remiss not to mention the performances, for which both won Best Actor awards at the Berlin Film Festival earlier in 2015. Both are outstanding and I’ll pick on just two moments which display a mastery of a craft they made their career. When Courtenay’s Jeff first tries to explain how Katya would have frozen in the ice, he does a chilly sort of self-embrace, yet his voice and his eyes are full of excitement and wonder, almost as if this ardent young love is rekindling deep inside. It is a spectacular moment that both we, the audience, and Kate his wife pick up on, yet it remains subconscious for all.
Meanwhile, Rampling is at her imperious best. Haigh himself has put it: “I see a hurricane of emotion under the surface – you are invited to watch, but also warned to keep your distance.” But in one scene the fire burns through the ice when we see her, entirely in profile, angrily confronting Jeff about his buried feelings for Katya. Haigh gets an extraordinary angle on this classic face I’ve never seen before, so it’s like seeing something new in a familiar painting: the lip juts, the chin prods like an accusatory finger, the shoulders quiver. I felt chilled and thrilled to witness it, a character in turmoil, an actress in complete control.
Don’t miss 45 Years. It may well be the finest British film this year.