What do you do when you discover your life is built on a lie — or, if not a life, a truth half-told?
That is the dilemma that Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) finds herself in after 45 years of marriage to Geoff (Tom Courtenay); a childless couple comfortably set in their ways after more than half a lifetime together — closer to two-thirds in fact.
Kate, a former schoolteacher, likes to get up early, walk the Alsatian, Max, through the picturesque Norfolk countryside. It’s clear from her first brief conversation with the postman — “Please, call me Kate” — that this is someone who has lived a life; a nice lady, someone we want to see happy. Geoff is more of a homebody, preferring to read, get on with odd jobs. She, elegant, informative but not patronizing; he, soft-spoken, distracted, somewhat greyer.
They’re preparing to celebrate their 45th when, out of the blue, Geoff receives a letter from Switzerland: the body of his first love, Katya, has just been located, more than half a century since she disappeared into a crevasse. The process responsible for this — the steady thawing of a glacier — is an apt metaphor, too, as, in light of all this coming to the surface, Kate discovers the bonds of marriage softly dissolving around her.
Andrew Haigh’s film quietly documents the compromises and regrets that accompany long-term companionship; the hobbies dispensed with, the decisions made.
Geoff, once a firebrand leftie, rues that a factory colleague once nicknamed “Red Len” now has a banker for a grandson; that another is now tediously obsessed with his ukulele. Kate, meanwhile — in arguably the film’s dramatic high-point — struggles to hold it together after a trip to the attic. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, she blurts out on the phone to the events planner; a choice with tragic irony given the clarity that’s just descended as to how the absent figure of Katya has influenced the course of their lives.
Rampling is resplendent as a woman whose stiffness conceals a deep-rooted vulnerability while Courtenay’s slovenly, uncommunicative Geoff feels like a man out of whom life is slowly letting the air — both deservedly won Golden Bears at Berlin.
Neither bitter or maudlin, 45 Years achieves a tender restraint in its understated depiction of aging flesh and shared loss.