Friday, December 25, 2015

45 Years (****)

Written and Directed by Andrew Haigh


Domestic dramas are a dime a dozen, and while many can be histrionic amd verbose like Revolutionary Road (a good film in its own right) , there are times when you get something as subtly beautiful and stunning as 45 Years. Andrew Haigh's new film stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, two titans of the screen and two of the most celebrated actors of England. They play Kate and Geoff Mercer, a married couple one week away from their forty-fifth anniversary. To celebrate, they'll be having a major party, inviting hundreds of family and friends, renting out an event hall, and organizing catering and music. This party comes after Geoff's bypass surgery postponed the original event they'd planned for their fortieth. It's not the first time that Cate has had to rearrange plans on Geoff's behalf, but poor health is hardly a reason to get upset. All things in marriage take compromise, you're constantly having to make major choices based on the other person - you're no longer just living for yourself, solely. 45 Years is a somber, expertly-told example of what happens when that compromise feels all for naught, when your concept of love and commitment is challenged in a way that you cannot move past. None of its emotion feels cheap, none of its lines of dialogue feel misused, and most importantly, neither of its main stars waste any time in delivering two of the best performances of the year. 45 Years is a performance-led film, but its narrative sinks to the bone, giving us a story of heartbreak unlike any I'd seen in a long while.

On the Monday before their big anniversary party, Geoff receives a letter in German: they've finally found the body of a woman he used to love after fifty years of searching. Geoff is immediately overcome, and Cate is at a loss as to how to show support. She was a aware that there was a former flame, and that she had disappeared, been presumed dead, but the two had never really discussed it at length. Geoff's grief is reborn, heightened even. He's considering going to Switzerland to identify the body, as the letter had asked, but Cate will have none of it. What about the party? Cate never realized before just how much the specter of this former lover had hung over their relationship, effected decisions they'd made, both long-term and short. She considers her life, their choice not to have children, their choice to live comfortably versus living fully. She considers Geoff's stubbornness, his fierce political agendas and his wilting lobido, and all of the many sacrifices that she's made for the sake of the marriage, to keep the marriage intact. All of it was worth it, all of his foibles and nonsense was worth it, as long as he was only hers, and hers only. Learning that his heart was so fully with someone else, learning that that former love may have been even more passionate than the one they've shared for forty-five years, is enough to tear Cate apart. As the days creep closer and closer to the date of the party, Cate's patience crumbles and Geoff's irascible behavior continues. Milestones are important to note, but before the biggest celebration of their union, the Mercers face their toughest challenge yet.

45 Years is based on a short story by David Constantine. I couldn't tell you the tone behind that particular piece of prose, but Haigh writes and directs this film like a suspense thriller. The ominous letter is a current which shatters the dam of decades of tension, and Haigh is so soft and patient with how he allows the slow build of emotion throughout the narrative. It helps to have two great performances from two great actors. Rampling has found a certain ripeness lately, and has spent the last decade single-handedly improving films like Melancholia and Young & Beautiful. 45 Years is the first time in a while that she's been given a lead role, and the brilliant, multi-lingual actress gives her greatest performance since she imbued 1974's The Night Porter with such exquisite heart and subversiveness. Courtenay plays Geoff with a predictable old man grumpiness, but the stage-veteran is so savvy, astute to the craft of acting, that he's able to show Geoff's shock, guilt and mourning. He hasn't stopped loving Cate, and he's aware of how inappropriate his newfound interest in a former lover is, but his heart is getting pulled apart in ways he cannot explain. Courtenay makes you sympathize with Geoff, because he shows how Geoff is acting out against his better judgment. But it's Rampling who's given the star part here, and it's Rampling who dominates the film with her suspicion and incremental heartbreak on full display. Throughout the film, it's hard to read Cate's mind, and Haigh is coy throughout the film to make her thoughts a partial mystery, though Rampling is sure to keep Cate's feelings up front and center. This leads the film into an utterly shattering climax, where for the first time we see just how the entire situation has bruised her.

45 Years is a late-year release, but it is still one of the greatest films of this year. It's a truly mature film, adult in the most piercing definition of the word. This is Haigh's third feature, and his first film since 2011's Weekend (a film which I haven't seen), which was another relationship drama. Weekend was about two gay men trying to go from a casual relationship to something more serious; 45 Years is about two people who have been together so long, their personalities have become projections. There's a moment in the film where Cate finds an old slide projector in the attic of their home. She discovers a large collection of slide photos that Geoff had hidden of him and his former German love. The sequence is a masterful piece of filmmaking, done almost completely in one shot, as Cate sinks deeper and deeper into herself with each slide. It's a perfect example of the film's intelligent direction and breathtaking acting. At its center, 45 Years is about the perpetual fragility of human relationships, the senseless pain us people inflict on the ones we love the most. Forty-five years spent with anyone is an achievement worth celebrating, but Haigh's film is compelling in showing us how it is also a struggle, a constant tightrope walk around hurt feelings and broken hearts. I don't mean to make it sound like 45 Years is a particularly cynical film, but a lot of its strength comes from the realism in its script, and the way that script shows the thin line between happiness and despair. We all have our secrets. 45 Years shows us that some are bigger than others.

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