Movie Review: a marriage under a microscope in the chilling “45 Years”.
Forget “The Hateful Eight”: when it comes to emotional violence, Quentin Tarantino’s latest rowdy bloodbath doesn’t have anything on Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years,” a shattering look at a marriage haunted by the ghosts of the past. As delicately observed and rich in detail as a good novel, Haigh’s new film is so eerily assured, so precise in its insights into grief and romantic stasis, that it’s easy to forget that you are actually watching a work of fiction, so transparently lived-in is the execution of this astonishing new drama. I must confess reader, that I was not ready for this film to knock me out of my seat in the way that it did, but the cold, sobering gravity of “45 Years” is visceral and impossible to deny. Pity I already handed in my Top 10 Film list for 2015 — this is easily one of the most affecting films of last year, and also one of the best.
Tellingly, Haigh frames this devastatingly intimate chamber play like a domestic horror movie, where relationship-ruining heirlooms are more likely to be discovered in the attic then dead bodies — and also one where the ghosts mentioned earlier are strictly metaphorical. “45 Years” is hardly as punishing as Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” another similarly grave expose of a mid-life marital conflict, but in its own quiet and deliberate way, it is every bit as disturbing. What Haigh has done here is map out an entire, comprehensive emotional landscape — littered with explosions of pitiless cruelty and lapses into the bleak abyss — that enthralls the audience and simultaneously illuminates the rift that exists between two people who have spent almost half a century together. I was vaguely familiar with Haigh before I saw his new film — he directed several episodes of HBO’s witty and recently-cancelled queer dramedy “Looking,” and his 2011 debut “Weekend” got a lot of people excited — but I must say, nothing prepared me for the complete and utter formal mastery he displays here. “45 Years” is a work that deserves comparison to the great, bruising relationship dramas of Ingmar Bergman — mostly “Through a Glass Darkly” and “The Passion of Anna” — and yet is completely its own animal; a work of old-fashioned cinematic character-building that is so elegantly understated in its delivery that it’s possible to not even really comprehend the essence of the movie’s devastating power until a few days after you see it. Watching it left me breathless, hollowed out and unconscionably grateful for the blessings in my own marriage.
Screen vets Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay play our married couple. They are Geoff and Kate: a pair of polite, reserved middle-class Brits who live in an utterly charming cottage on the idyllic outskirts of Norfolk with their loving German Shepherd Max in place of a child. As the film begins, Kate is planning the couple’s 45th wedding anniversary — an unspecified ailment prevented Geoff from participating in the 40th, so they’re making up for lost time. Even in the early scenes, there is the unshakable omen of bad things to come. Without giving too much away, the source of the main conflict stems from Geoff’s rather pathetic fixation on a girlfriend from his past: a great beauty named Katya who plummeted to her death in the Swiss Alps many years ago. Katya is never seen physically with Geoff, but the cruel promise of her memory hangs over every terse exchange between him and his increasingly distant wife. Every meaning-suffused pause, every stark, cutting silence — even the accusatory stares are somehow colored by Katya’s looming presence. As the week grinds on, questions begin to arise. Just who was Katya to Geoff really? Would the old man have married her if he had never met Kate? At the end of the week, will there still be a marriage left to celebrate?
“45 Years” sounds like grim, maybe miserable stuff, but this film is no slog — here is a picture that is practically bursting at the seams with empathy. Granted, Haigh often (understandably) sides with Rampling’s Kate, and he utilizes the legendary actress’s gorgeous, one-of-a-kind face — where the most minor facial twitch can communicate a lifetime’s worth of uncertainty — to his unquestionable advantage. And yet, to his credit, he sees both sides of the story and addresses both with an equivocal degree of compassion. His is a film that asks huge, life-altering questions (how well do you really know your romantic partner? what are the dangers of nostalgia?) and is finally smart and brave enough to admit to not knowing the answers. Instead, our director merely presents us with the all-too-relatable, messy contradiction of life and human behavior and asks us, without holding our hand, to make up our own minds. It’s not as simple as picking sides.
Not enough laudatory notices can do justice to the majesty of the film’s two central performances. Rampling does nothing less than display her naked soul for the audience to pick apart, and the result is the bravest and best performance of an already-intimidating career. Courtenay is every bit her equal, though his character is admittedly harder to warm up to. His Geoff is gruff and closed-off much of the time, and embarrassingly, almost comically callow at others - his emotional see-sawing creates a sense of disequilibrium that can be off-putting. His movie-capping speech at the movie’s climax seems almost unthinkably poignant, until you realize that what he’s saying is itself is almost unbelievably fraudulent. Together, Geoff and Kate form the composite of a couple we’ve all known at one point or another in our lives. They are pleasant on the surface, openly wounded, even if they’re not keen on discussing the details and above all, determined to stay together — because they are both deathly frightened of what they might discover if they were left alone for any extended period of time. “45 Years,” which is a chronicle of Geoff and Kate’s eroding romance, their push-and-pull dynamic and the enduring, complex history of truth and lies that’s composed their marriage, is a film of startling and intoxicating psychological fluidity.
There’s a lot of overly ostentatious dick-swinging going on in Hollywood filmmaking as of late. Granted, that’s always been the case, but between the unholy operatic cruelty of “The Hateful Eight” and the strained macho histrionics of “The Revenant,” (both very good films, by the way) it feels like many of the industry’s most respected auteurs are all-too-happily whipping it out in public, measuring their individual and collective displays of fortitude with rallying cries of “whaddya got, motherfucker?!” This is why seeking out a soulful, subtle, mature work of art like “45 Years” should be required viewing for anyone who calls themselves a cinephile in 2015. Here is a film, finally, that is not meant to be consumed and then forgotten about like fast food, but one that is meant to be cherished and savored like a good wine. It is unquestionably one of 2015’s finest films. Also, for what it’s worth, it boasts the most pitch-perfect and unbelievably depressing final shot of the year. A