Andrew Haigh's latest film "45 Years" (2015) is one of the big film events of this year and not least because of the memorable performances of its two leading actors, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. It's a very simple film, granted, but exceptionally good as such. Both performers do an excellent job. Haigh's narrative is character-driven and never self-aware. All seems to be subjected to what is going on inside these characters. The film has been shot in the beautiful English countryside whose unreliable and unpredictable weather plays an integral role in the drama of untold memories, hidden emotions, and their appearance. It is a moving film about time and the complex relations between the past and the present.
The story centers around a retired, childless couple, Kate (Rampling) and Geoff (Courtenay) who have been married for 45 years. One day Geoff receives a letter telling him that the body of his ex-lover before his marriage, Katya, has been found fully preserved in the Swiss glaciers. This event as well as the approaching arrival of their 45th anniversary coerces the couple into re-evaluating their relationship, the choices they have made in life, and their deepest desires.
This story, based on a short story by David Constantine, is itself great in its simplicity, but Haigh also deals with it in an exquisite fashion. He has chosen not just the perfect performers for the roles but also the perfect milieu of the English countryside which works as a barometer for the characters' emotions. Haigh utilizes a moving camera and lingering, though not strikingly long, shots. He uses a wide range of different shots ranging from long full shots of the landscapes to medium close-ups of Kate's seemingly calm face which encapsulates her powerful eyes where a lot of emotion is going on that she is unable to express in words or gestures. Repeatedly, Haigh places Rampling wandering in the milieu, defining the character's relationship with the space that surrounds her. These scenes may strike as excessive to some, but one ought to relate them to the 45 years, to the time that is embodied in these five days before the anniversary celebration.
The title of the film refers to a time gone by, but the film takes place strictly (that is, flashbacks are excluded) in the present. The past finds form in the memory of Katya, the ghost in the couple's life who Kate never really knew. Katya, as the embodiment of the past, is a threat to the presence. It is as if she mocked the living in her death that has saved her from aging unlike Kate and Geoff. Geoff also takes a sudden interest in climate change, a powerful symbol not only for the slow eruption of drama for the couple but also the emergence of Katya, the past, beneath the surface. In a key scene, where Kate goes to their attic to study Geoff's old travel photos from the trip to Switzerland where Katya died, the slide projector -- offering the truths from the past -- is the only source of light and sound in an otherwise dark and silent present. In the long take, which covers the whole scene, we can sense the danger of the past swallowing the present, the danger of Kate falling into the glacier that once engulfed Katya.
Overall, "45 Years" is an extremely simple film. It bears no social nor metaphysical connotations. Formal elements serve the development of drama and character psychology. One can't really, however, talk about the subordination of style for the service of story because the external story is veritably marginal. It is, above all, an inner drama, taking place inside the characters. In all its simplicity, "45 Years" is a subtle, yet emotionally bursting film about the fragility, incompleteness, and vulnerability of life and love which have already lasted through a lot and grown in the process.