45 Years (2015)
Director: Andrew Haigh
Writers: David Constantine (short story), Andrew Haigh (adaptation)
Starring: Charlotte Rampling, Dolly Wells, Tom Courtenay
Andrew Haigh’s sophomore feature, Weekend (2011), blended a grounding in social realism with contemplative pacing; made on a miniscule budget of £120,000, Weekend owes as much to Antonioni as Loach in its meditative exploration of a relationship blossoming amidst the exigencies of the gay scene. Haigh parlayed this approach into his HBO series, Looking, which abjured the tropes of the ‘gay show’, and in so doing failed to attract a vicarious mass audience looking for the standard bacchanalia. In its consciously low-key tone, Looking called into question how gay people were willing to be defined, repudiating what had hitherto passed for authenticity by depicting gay life as mundane and, in its own way, conformist.
Based on David Constantine’s short story, ‘In Another Country’, Haigh’s latest offering tells the story of Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay), who are about to celebrate their 45th anniversary when Geoff receives a letter informing him that the body of his former girlfriend has been discovered, perfectly preserved, in the alpine crevasse where she fell to her death fifty years earlier. This discovery throws everything off balance, and forces painful questions to be addressed on the eve of the party to mark their anniversary.
Those seeking a conceptual through line from Weekend to 45 Years will find it in the way Haigh does not stoop to a reductive take on ageing. Much like Weekend‘s exploration of life as a gay man, 45 Years is able to dramatise the private narratives that sustain relationships, and can ultimately destroy them, with honesty and insight. Haigh is able to engineer an intimacy between his leads that brings to mind Haneke’s Amour (2012) in its unflinching gaze; it is an act of creative subtraction, until all that remains is the characters tussling with the agreed upon terms of their entanglements, fighting private battles within these embedded yet tenuous understandings. Naturally, a key to the success of 45 Years is its two central performances, whose Silver Bear awards at this year’s Berlinale were richly deserved.
For much of the past thirty years, Rampling has been able to maintain dual paths, picking up Cesar nominations for her work with European auteurs like Francois Ozon and entrenching herself in the arthouse without entirely forsaking the mainstream. Here she delivers a beautifully nuanced and perfectly pitched performance which traces Kate’s inner tumult. Like the man himself, Courtenay’s performance is of a much more methodical metre, but it is no less effective for it; he brings a woundingly forlorn quality to a man struggling to reconcile competing realities and looking with a sense of loss at possible paths foreclosed.
Haigh is nothing if not attuned to the beats of acting; his background in editing is evident in the composition of extended scenes; he takes great pains not to step on his actors’ toes, and the result is a master class in emotional immediacy. Haigh’s aesthetic is realist without being artless, aiming for proximity to the performers while creating an unconstrained dramatic space. But 45 Years is far from verite in its execution; Haigh adjusts depth of field to lend a further layer of meaning to a scene, and implements diegetic music to underscore changing dynamics; some of these audio pointers are not so subtle, but they serve their purpose.
While it may attract a middlebrow audience, 45 Years is far from a middlebrow experience; the long takes diverge from the prevailing pitch of modern cinema, and there is little comfort or consolation to be found in its sense of creeping malaise. These factors may serve to alienate many of the older demographic which is now being coveted with the same ardour as the teen market. Though the performances are charming, 45 Years does not deal in nostalgia; there is a darkness at its core which leaves a residue of unease. Haigh deals with the existential dread that attends our choices, and the disintegration of stability in the face of doubt; he proves himself adept at linking the disparate strands of human experience.