'45 Years': Berlin Review

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Subtle, sophisticated, Bergman-esque portrait of a late-life marital crisis

Andrew Haigh's Berlin competition contender is a quietly powerful study of a long-term marriage shaken by shock revelations and jealousy towards a long-dead love rival

Autumnal contentment suddenly crumbles into quiet desperation in writer-director Andrew Haigh's classy third feature, a contemporary British drama with an almost Ingmar Bergman-esque take on the fragile certainties of love and marriage. Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling co-star as the central couple, a smart bit of casting which knowingly plays on the nostalgia value of the pair's shared history as youthful icons of European social-realist cinema. On several levels, 45 Years is a film haunted by the ghosts of the past.

Haigh earned great acclaim with his 2011 breakthrough feature Weekend, a deliciously nuanced exploration of gay love and sexuality. He followed that with the San Francisco-set HBO ensemble drama Looking, which has just entered its second season. Making is world premiere in the main Competition section in Berlin, 45 Years is a more conventional work than either, though Haigh describes it as a thematic sister film to Weekend. That is arguable, but this is still a polished and absorbing two-hander with rock-solid festival appeal and niche distribution potential based on its veteran stars and Haigh's own high critical standing.

Courtenay and Rampling play Geoff and Kate Mercer, a childless couple deep into their retirement years, who share a handsome rural home in the picturesque flatlands of Norfolk in eastern England. A week before their 45th wedding anniversary party, Geoff receives a shock letter explaining that the body of Katia, his long-lost German sweetheart, has been found perfectly preserved in a Swiss glacier. After falling to her death in an alpine hiking accident, Katia has been missing for 50 years.

This macabre news unsettles Geoff, who takes up smoking again and begins making shaky plans for a possible trip to Switzerland. But Kate is more profoundly shaken, especially when she discovers Geoff was officially listed as Katia's next of kin. Playing detective, she sifts through her husband's private photo archives, uncovering more revelations from his past which potentially shaped the choices he later made with her. While she maintains a brave face for social obligations and party preparations, Kate is slowly devoured by unspoken jealousy and gnawing doubt.

45 Years is based on David Constantine's short story In Another Country, first published in his well reviewed 2005 collection Under The Dam. Haigh retains the basic plot details and character names but expands the action, ditches the World War II context of the Katia character, and makes the elderly protagonists a decade or so younger. Even though Geoff and Kate are clearly beginning to suffer the health problems of later life, Haigh portrays them as emotionally and physically active. A sex scene between the 77-year-old Courtenay and 68-year-old Rampling may end in comic disappointment, but it is still a rare and touching defiance of movie convention.

Kate is very much the script's main emotional focus, but Haigh is careful not to make Geoff into a cliched insensitive oaf who tramples over his wife's tender feelings. Both are flawed but sympathetic. Spiced with fragments of back story and vintage jukebox hits from the couple's courtship days, the screen chemistry between Courtenay and Rampling captures the convincing texture of long-term marriage with all its non-verbal communication, unfinished sentences and half-buried tensions. That deep-frozen body in the glacier serves as poetic metaphor as well as literal plot device.

Framed by crisp wide shots of misty Norfolk landscapes in washed-out watercolor tones, 45 Years is visually appealing and carefully restrained. That said, many of the ensemble scenes feel like padding, with their stilted dialogue and superfluous secondary characters. Some viewers may also find this very English story a little too tastefully understated, since Haigh ultimately avoids the full tragic darkness that a Bergman or a Michael Haneke film might have tackled. Do not expect blazing emotional fireworks, just finely calibrated performances and deep reserves of inner torment.

Production company: The Bureau
Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, Dolly Wells
Director, screenwriter: Andrew Haigh
Producer: Tristan Goligher
Cinematographer: Lol Crawley
Editor: Jonathan Alberts
Casting director: Kathleen Crawford
Sales company: The Match Factory, Cologne
Unrated, 93 minutes

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