(Andrew Haigh, 2015)
British cinema can be so adept at the intimate small-scale middle-class drama it is frightening. Is it to do with the fact that the genre is so popular on UK television? Or the preponderance of classy, stage-trained thespians in the British industry? It seems to me that something in the British character - the boiling emotions beneath the still surface - is perfectly suited to these stories, and 45 Years is a fine example of this sort of story.
Jeff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling) are an elderly couple, living comfortably together in a nice little house in a beautiful, rural corner of Norfolk. They listen to digital radio, read literature, eat healthy, recycle, walk their dog Max, and are planning for their imminent 45th Anniversary party. And then Jeff receives a letter in the post from Switzerland. In 1962 he and his then-girlfriend Katya, were trekking together through the Alps when she fell into a crevice and died. Now, decades later, her body has been discovered, perfectly preserved inside a glacier.
This news unmoors Jeff, and slowly a distance develops between the couple as Kate begins to see the things she has never known about him, and suspects previously undiscovered motivations for some of the decisions which have shaped their life together.
All of this is patiently, subtly observed over the course of five days as they go about their normal lives. We see them meet friends for lunch, shop, eat dinner, chat before bed, go for walks, and yet the shadow of Katya looms larger and larger, especially after Jeff begins to dig about in the attic for photos of his old love and Kate begins to check into what he has been looking for.
The script is nicely modulated; gentle and polite, and yet the sense of tumultuous inner lives is awakened from the moment when Jeff calls his old love "my Katya" in the moments immediately following his opening of the letter. Most of the heavy lifting is done by Rampling and Courtenay, both communicating so much in their pauses and hesitations and the soulful, wary hurt in their eyes. Rampling is particularly astounding and Haigh rewards her with a stunning final prolonged close-up where we can see the seismic emotions beneath the surface of her face.
The intensity of their work and the delicacy of Haigh's script and direction allows the film to go beyond just their relationship in its gaze; it investigates age and memory, regret, love and commitment. It is all terribly middlebrow in its careful reticence, and even so it becomes quite powerful by the climactic party scene. And yet the real star of the film is probably the beauty of the winter light as it falls upon the fields and broads of Norfolk; a very English look for a very English treatment of this story.