Marriage: two people come together, make a proclamation of lifelong devotion and fidelity and try their damnedest to carry it out. For some, it all works out. For others, it doesn’t. What makes the difference?
Could it be the convenient omission of crucial information? Possibly. The marriage at the core of 45 Years—available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection—has survived this long because of an event in Geoff’s (Tom Courtenay) past that has been casually, or calculatedly, glossed over. But as the old story goes: Truth will out. And when it does, it takes everything in its path. Just look at the face of Kate (Charlotte Rampling) when she finally realizes what her husband has been covering up. His omission may have carried them 45 years, but the truth could cost them number 46.
One week before their 45th wedding anniversary, news arrives that Geoff’s ex-girlfriend’s body has been discovered. The woman died 45 years ago—before Geoff and Kate ever met—while on vacation with Geoff in Switzerland. The two were hiking on a glacier when she fell down a fissure and died. Due to the location, the body could not be recovered, but thanks to global warming, the glacier has thawed, and the authorities rescued the body and notified the next of kin, which happens to be Geoff.
Geoff has told Kate this story before, but it was many years ago, and Kate—head-over-heels and in love with Geoff—most likely dismissed the event. Yes, the death was tragic and a traumatic moment in Geoff’s past, but we all have our little tragedies. Life goes on.
But Geoff can’t let it go. His mind wanders, and he no longer seems present. Kate looks at her husband and wonders what he isn’t telling her. Or maybe he has told her everything, but age has cost him, and his mind can no longer recall the past as strongly as he wishes. Memory is a funny thing; one can actually repress the truth so long that it’s forgotten. That is until the day comes when those secrets can no longer be submerged, and the truth comes bubbling to the surface.
That moment hits Kate like a punch to the gut, and it is the reason that Rampling was nominated for Best Female Performance at the 2016 Academy Awards. Alone in the attic, Kate searches for the truth in Geoff’s carousel, viewing slides from the past one at a time as if confronting a ghost in the dark of night. Kate’s face conveys mountains of emotion while she watches 45 years of her marriage erode under an unstoppable realization.
This is not the first time that writer/director Andrew Haigh has found just the right moment to reveal a character’s entirety. Haigh’s previous film, Weekend (2011), managed a similar reveal when a gay couple saying goodbye to each other on a train platform received catcalls and a few homophobic slurs. There, as with 45 Years, Haigh proves that there is no veneer that a movie camera cannot penetrate. It sees through our façades, past our defense, and right into our souls.
45 Years achieves that effect, as Haigh’s camera—manned by the understated cinematographer Lol Crawley—observes moments so casually that we barely even notice that what we are really watching is not just the love and joy of a 45-year commitment but the toll as well.