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45 Years: Superb drama about a couple possessed by past

Don't let the downbeat premise fool you, this is a captivating drama with Oscar-worthy performances, writes Andrew Johnston

Published 28/08/2015

In crisis: Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling as couple George and Kate in 45 Years
In crisis: Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling as couple George and Kate in 45 Years
Charlotte Rampling as Kate in 45 Years

Andrew Haigh's 45 Years certainly isn't blockbuster material, but it is undoubtedly one of the finest films of the year. The English writer and director's follow-up to 2011's Weekend - which dealt with the strained relationship between two gay men - here focuses on a fracture in a marriage in its 45th year. But despite this potentially downbeat premise, it is every bit as sparky and intriguing as a movie featuring a younger central couple might be.

Based on a short story by David Constantine, 45 Years has been fleshed out somewhat, but remains essentially a two-hander between Tom Courtenay, as Geoff Mercer, and Charlotte Rampling, as his wife Kate. The veteran actors are superb, each dominating the screen during their solo moments, but displaying generosity and chemistry when together. It wouldn't be a surprise if either or both are nominated at next year's Oscars.

During preparations for their 45th wedding anniversary party - messily delayed from five years prior, due to a medical emergency - Geoff is contacted by the Swiss authorities, who have found the perfectly preserved body of his ex-girlfriend, who went missing while hiking in the Alps five decades previously. The situation triggers a crisis of trust between Kate and Geoff.

The Mercers -who appear to have had no children, but do own a German shepherd dog, Max - live in a small Norfolk village, where fog seems to permanently hover over the landscape, and fellow residents veer between eccentric and damaged. It's an atmospheric setting for the unfolding drama.

With the genie out of the bottle, retired schoolteacher Kate becomes fixated on her husband's past, consumed by feelings of panic, jealousy and even rage. The less she knows, the more frustrated she is, yet the more she finds out, the sadder she becomes.

Meanwhile, ex-factory boss Geoff, who is superficially nonchalant about the whole business, is clearly haunted by long-suppressed feelings. Courtenay essays Geoff as a would-be matter-of-fact man, but one about whom you can't deduce if there's more going on beneath the surface.

Kate deals in 'what ifs'. Geoff only wants to talk about what is or isn't, what has or hasn't happened.

Rampling (69) gives a marvellous performance, making the most of Haigh's rich dialogue, but saying as much with her face and body movements when her character is alone. A scene in which Kate plays the piano for what may be the first time in years is heartbreaking, suggesting a different path her life could have taken without Geoff.

For his part, Courtenay gives one of his all-time best celluloid performances. His closing speech would be a gift to any actor, and the 78-year-old theatre stalwart makes the absolute most of it.

There's a welcome thread of existentialism throughout, some shrewd insights and a sex scene that is as real as it gets. It's not necessarily a sentimental tale, but it is emotionally impactful, and the message that life is chaos, and that time is fleeting, is a sobering one.

All in all, 45 Years is a worthwhile hour and a half, sure to be as captivating for viewers just embarking on their adult lives as for those nearing the end.

Four stars

Belfast Telegraph

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