James Marsh is an English director best known for his 2008 film, Man on Wire, which won many awards including the Oscar for Best Documentary. His other notable non-fiction credits include Wisconsin Death Trip (1999) and Project Nim (2011). Marsh also directs fiction films, including The King (2005), starring Gael Garcia Bernal; Red Riding: 1980 (2009), the second part of the Red Riding trilogy; and Shadow Dancer (2012), with Clive Owen and Gillian Anderson.
How does a film focused exclusively on a week in the life of an utterly unremarkable aging English couple as they prepare to celebrate 45 years of marriage become a full-blown tragedy by its final scene? This is quite an achievement given that 45 Years doesn’t end in death or any outward calamity or act of destruction. It ends simply with an anniversary party and a dance between the married partners. But its final scene is devastatingly sad and upsetting, and by the end of this carefully controlled and beautifully acted film, there is the real spectacle of tragedy in the most unlikely context of a geriatric slow dance, a tragedy that has been patiently and stealthily seeded throughout the duration of the film – and one that offers precious little consolation to either its characters or its audience.
That is not to say 45 Years is depressing or somber as it unfolds. It is certainly slow-moving and lo-fi, though, a film whose palpable and increasingly compelling tension is achieved by the observation of small gestures and looks between the couple and later, in the very absence of small gestures and looks between them. Something is slowly dying in the film and perhaps it is the thing we fear most when we get old – not death itself, but the loss of long-held certainties and routines and the absence of enough future time in which to find new ones.
In the opening scenes of the film, the couple, in their late sixties, with the almost hilariously English names of Geoff and Kate, are observed going about their well-established routines with a cozy familiarity. They have no children but seem comfortable in that choice and have a dog both to remind them of it and offer a substitute. This couple communicates, they share, they give each other space – and to be frank, their life together is complacent, unexceptional, dull. It is only by virtue of the visually precise filmmaking by the writer-director Andrew Haigh and the detailed, specific, complex characterizations by the two stalwart English actors, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, that the early part of the film is kept sufficiently alive and watchable.
There is a tragic death in 45 Years which predates the four and a half decades the couple have been together – and it is this death that initiates the more formless tragedy that reveals itself in the final act of the film. Before he met Kate, Geoff had a passionate affair with a German woman who died whilst out walking with him in the Alps – the body is not recovered and lies frozen under ice, along with the passions it engendered, until the Alpine glacier retreats (due to global warming), to reveal it frozen in time, preserved in the bloom of youth.
This revelation, arriving in the week of their anniversary preparations, unsettles and then obsesses Geoff, showing him a passion that never ran its course and thus another life that might have been available to him – and so begins the process of shattering the life he now has, as his wife becomes fixated on his fixation and what it means for her. You sense a gradual divergence in their perception of their shared past as it fractures into individual and selfish interpretation. They doggedly continue with preparations to formally celebrate the longevity of their bond, whilst the bond itself is slowly unraveling. Or rapidly unraveling. The film’s title is 45 Years, but its timeframe is one week.
Andrew Haigh has already offered us an interesting companion piece to 45 Years; his previous film, Weekend, was about the first flush of attraction between two men who may have a future together. Unlike 45 Years, it is a film that looks forward rather than back and when it ends, it invites us to imagine (and wish for) a possible future between these two pleasure-seeking men whose erotic encounters have lead to a growing tenderness and empathy for each other over a weekend spent together in bed, at parties, at clubs.
Weekend is a film about falling in love and the giddy promise of what can follow, however fragile and empty that promise may prove to be. 45 Years also examines a relationship telescoped into a matter of days (in both films, the passing of each day is clearly signified, adding a discreet narrative tension) but the difference in their titles says it all – 45 years compared to a weekend.
45 Years asks us to speculate on what has come before and gives us enough incidental detail to put together the contours of a partnership that was once passionate and volatile, but is now stable through the attrition of years, where all the necessary compromises that two individuals need to make to live together have long been made and accepted. What fault lines there are between the couple seem to be the product of the contrariness and indignities of old age. Even so, they each show a weary, practiced tolerance to the predictable, irritating habits of thought and deed they have learned to tolerate and humor in each other. All is stable and under control.
That is, until it is not.
Haigh strives to make real cinema in an English setting, which is a lot harder than it sounds. Modern England is a soggy, dull island with its small, unsexy cars, its bland, incoherent modern architecture, its visually obnoxious, cluttered high streets, its fetid, joyless pubs, and a surly, undemonstrative population who can only show a passion for life when they are drunk. Everything looks (and is) just a bit shabby and tatty and depressing in modern England. These are not promising ingredients for bold, intoxicating visual cinema so most English filmmakers have tended to shamelessly glamorize the contemporary reality of the country they live in or ignore it completely by looking into the past to create a meretricious beauty that is equally dishonest.
Haigh has now made two films of real cinema out of the unpromising raw materials of his native country. He does it by embracing all the elements I’ve itemized – he just lets them be and goes looking for the vitality and humanity he can find within the outward mediocrity. He has a great sense of composition and of how he can convey the psychology of a scene in one carefully controlled shot. 45 Years is filmed simply, in long takes with minimal conventional dialogue coverage. Kate is shown in increasingly isolated wider shots as the film progresses and Haigh cleverly organizes his framings when the couple is in the same scene to show their gradual alienation from each other.
As a director, Haigh is much more interested in the visual possibilities of cinema than Mike Leigh, another English filmmaker who might be seen as some kind inspiration for the kind of films Haigh is making. But Haigh’s work seems more honest and more genuinely grounded in the reality of life lived in his native country. Haigh never condescends to his characters. That is shown in abundance in 45 Years; both Kate and Geoff are exasperating at times – selfish, needy and petty – but he keeps you fully invested in both and I suspect that is why the film holds such power in its extraordinary final scene.
It is Kate’s idea to reprise at their anniversary party the same song that serenaded their wedding – Smoke Gets in Your Eyes – and early on in the film, just before she learns about the corpse her husband still loves, she hums it. It is the last moment of contentment and happiness allowed to Rampling’s character. And it is the playing of the song at the anniversary party that detonates the tragedy. The couple is obliged to take the floor and dance to it. What follows should be seen, not described. Across a long five-minute take, it contains the best, most compelling performance by an actor I have seen this year.
There is one further song that accompanies the credits and it is where the director finally shows his hand. I won’t tell you what it is, but pay attention. It is the actual ending of the story.