Miles Davis has been credited as saying that it’s the notes you don’t play that matter more than the notes you do play. It’s a perfect description of his minimalist playing style — well-chosen notes that seem so natural, almost inevitable, despite the considerable thought that went into choosing them. 45 Years, the brilliant new film from director Andrew Haigh, subscribes to this same aesthetic. It’s a cinematic clinic on leaving things unsaid and letting the audience provide the connective tissue of the narrative without ever losing focus or momentum. Like good improvisation, each development offers a sense of surprise and newness, but on reflection, its detailed architecture can be dissected and admired all the more.
Geoff and Kate Mercer (Tom Courtenay, Charlotte Rampling) are a week away from their 45th wedding anniversary. They’re childless and have settled into a quiet retirement in a small English town. There’s a lifetime of unspoken history between them. Their marriage feels lived-in, real. Geoff is eight years or so older than Kate. When they married, Kate was only 20, and Geoff is the only true love she’s ever known. Geoff, however, had a “first love”, a fiancée named Katya, who died in a hiking accident a few years before Geoff and Kate met. When Geoff receives the official word that Katya’s body has been found, her specter looms over their anniversary celebration and leads Kate to become quietly obsessed with learning as much as possible about this mystery woman who first captured her husband’s heart.
45 Years is a subtle drama with two staggering performances from Courtenay and Rampling. Courtenay has the advantage of playing the more direct character, providing some of the exposition and narrative through his dialogue. The audience gains the majority of its knowledge and historical context through Geoff. But, it’s Rampling’s performance that dominates the film. Often in total silence, refusing to outwardly acknowledge her preoccupation with thoughts of Katya, Rampling conveys the insecurity, concern, and quiet anger that comes with re-examining an entire lifetime with a spouse that she might not fully know and understand. It’s a career-defining performance from a veteran actress. (If Brie Larson does not take home the Best Actress Oscar for Room, then she better lose to Rampling.)
It’s not a coincidence that the two women in Geoff’s life have virtually the same name (Katya, Kate). Nor is it coincidence that the two women look somewhat alike. Is Kate the second-hand Katya? A stand-in for the woman Geoff can never have? By the final haunting scene of the film, we understand the inner workings of Kate’s mind like we’ve spent hours inside the four walls of her home. The fact that 45 Years is a mere 95 minutes makes it all the more astonishing.
At its simplest, 45 Years is about the road not taken, the choice piled upon choice that results in the life we currently live. If any of those choices had been made differently, we would not have the life we now have. Kate’s thought processes aren’t limited to thinking about only her husband. If Katya had lived, Kate would never have met Geoff. Would she have children? Would she have taught school for a career? Would she have been happier? Would she have lived a fuller life? 45 Years never explicitly answers these and other questions. It leaves it to the viewer to decide, and you’ll still be pondering these characters days after you see this powerful film.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.