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45 Years

As a film, “45 Years” is excellent.  Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay both deliver great performances, understated, carefully calibrated performances, and Andrew Haigh’s direction is a textbook example of observant but unobtrusive storytelling.  Everything about this movie makes us lean in and pay attention;  it is quiet and devastating and emotionally authentic in ways few movies manage to be. A sure sign of the film’s effectiveness is that I want to talk about what happens more than I want to talk about how the filmmakers brought it to the screen. The story, though it is really, quite mundane, is compelling.  And compelling stories are why I go to the movies.

But that also means that if you haven’t seen “45 Years” and you think you might, it would be a good idea to stop reading this review now, because I’m not going to be careful about spoilers.  I’m going to talk about the story, and the characters.  And yet I don’t think I can really spoil a film like this; it’s not full of plot twists or dramatic revelations, after all.  And one of its strengths is that you may come away from it with a very different interpretation than I did, and that has almost nothing to do with the details of the plot.  But anyway – you’ve been warned.  Spoilers, of a sort, ahead.

A few days before their 45th anniversary celebration, Jeff receives a letter. Swiss officials have found the body of a former lover, Katya, who died 50 years ago in a hiking accident (she fell down a crevasse in a glacier.) This was before his marriage, and while he has mentioned it to his wife, Kate, understandably he hasn’t talked about it much. As anyone who has been involved in a “missing persons” case will understand, the recovery of her body begins a process of grieving for Jeff that has been on hold for half a century. This, triggers a great deal of insecurity and even jealousy in Kate, as her husband and life partner becomes preoccupied with a time in his life before her.  He attempts to involve her in his process – mostly through long conversations before they sleep – until she tells him she can’t talk about it anymore.  She starts to wonder how much of their life together has been influenced by this woman she never knew, and perhaps even to question if Jeff’s love for her is sincere, or if she is just a second choice.

A lot of other reviews I’ve read seem to feel that the emotional power of this film – and, in particular, the ending, relies heavily on believing that if Geoff really loved Katya, then his marriage to Kate is a lie. That he cannot possibly be devastated by the memory of what he lost while also and at the same time deeply grateful for the life he has lived and the woman he married. I just don’t see why those things are mutually exclusive. Life is more complicated than that.

I don’t see anything insincere in Jeff. I think his love for Kate is real, and easily coexists with his grief over Katya. I see Jeff grieving, the way survivors do when a body is finally discovered. Something that has been bottled up inside him for a half a century has finally broken loose.  It’s sad that his wife can’t stay in that process with him, but she takes herself out of it. I see Kate deciding to listen to her own jealousy and insecurity instead of to her husband, and that’s a feedback loop; the more he tries to convince her, the more she believes he is faking it. She is her own worst enemy, and he can’t save her from her own doubts and fears. She has to do that work on her own.

I don’t see a marriage falling apart, either. If this relationship was a few months or even years old, maybe. But 45 years is a long time to be married, and the actors convincingly portray characters who have lived through the ups and downs of a real marriage.  This isn’t a movie about a stunning revelation that undermines 45 years of matrimonial bliss.  That’s far too simplistic. It’s about how, even after all that time, you can find yourself surprised in a relationship – surprised by the other person, but also surprised by yourself, by what you’re feeling, and how strong you’re feeling it. But I suspect anyone who has been married for four and a half decades has learned that surprises aren’t threats to the relationship – in fact, just the opposite, they’re what keeps a long-term relationship vital.  In “45 Years,” we never see Kate and Jeff work through the issues that have surfaced, but I feel confident that they will.  And that in itself is the mark of well-realized characters; I find myself imagining what they will do next, after the credits have rolled.  They feel like real people, whose lives will continue on, after the camera has stopped following them.  That quality makes “45 Years” a top-shelf movie.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke.

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