There is an OMG moment in the middle of Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” that changes everything. You learn something you didn’t suspect. Everything afterward is colored by what you know. The rest of the film becomes a slow-burning fuse. You know that an explosion of some sort is more than possible.
What you get instead is a moment of sublime subtlety and quietly explosive power. It has been engineered by the extraordinary acting ability of Charlotte Rampling and a soundtrack full of the Platters’ recording of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.”
The Greeks knew all about such moments in tragic drama. Their word for that moment was “Peripeteia” – not the climax of the tragedy but that moment in it where everything that was, is no more. Something unsettled and chaotic and perilous has taken its place.
Somewhere in the Great Beyond, Aristotle is, no doubt, clapping his hands over “45 Years,” pointing down to the theaters showing it, and saying, in triumph, “do you SEE? That’s what I’m talking about.”
Good for old Ari. He might well have feared for all his mechanics and unities in the digital era.
“45 Years” is a film of exquisite and enormous subtlety. It is also a film of massive but subtle emotional power. No one should ever feel ashamed for worrying, though, in the film’s first half hour, that it was entirely too understated for its own good.
That is decidedly not the case when the film is over but it does seem that way at first. It’s part of the film’s strategy to trick you into being reassured by its placid purpose and, therefore, oblivious to the currents that are about to knock you off your feet and carry you out to sea.
Two of the most distinguished actors in British cinema – Rampling and Tom Courtenay – prove, yet again, that they are masters of the most naturalistic acting. The film’s attentiveness to location and domestic reality is close to cinema verite but it’s under beautiful control. The film looks Bergmanesque.
What we are watching is a happily married couple on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary. She is a retired teacher. He is a retiree from the local plant in this British country town. We learn later that heart bypass surgery has interrupted their long and seemingly idyllic marriage but they are wonderfully easy together.
Give them half a chance, in fact, and they’re liable to shove the big furniture out of the way and bust out some moves in their living room to the accompaniment of some old pop records – really old pop records. They’ll follow that by giving a bedroom frolic a try.
But something has stirred the currents beneath them. Husband Geoff Mercer (Courtenay) has received a letter from Switzerland telling him that the body of his former fiancee has been found frozen in the ice after slipping into a crevasse and dying in 1962.
The fact of that relationship wasn’t news to Kate (Rampling). But all relationships seem to have their own set of rules about how much is shared about past lives and hookups and such.
The undercurrent here begins to roil beneath the surface. And then surge – knocking the principals momentarily off their feet.
What writer-director Andrew Haigh (HBO’s “Looking”) presents to us is a surface whose appearance of reality is so impeccable that it’s like a documentary. There is no cuing soundtrack music either other than old songs and classical recordings that the couple listens to for pleasure. The dialogue is the minimalist dialogue of a couple that has been together for 45 years.
Until that letter arrives from Switzerland.
We’ve seen Rampling a bit over the past decade or so (she was wonderful in “Swimming Pool”) but Courtenay is a rare presence in 21st century movies. And yet his face, once upon a time, was key to movies like “Billy Liar” and “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” and “Dr. Zhivago.” He turns out, in our era, to be perfectly attuned to this kind of understated cinematic naturalism, where great dramatic things are happening at an angle – off-camera or simply not in close up (a lot of the dramatic close-ups are happening in your head).
The finale bowls you ever. It’s a great movie ending for one of the truly fine movies released in 2015.
Among other things that “45 Years” turns out to illustrate perfectly is the kind of film we’ve seen over the years that is simply too good for an Academy Award.
There was some talk of Rampling winning a Best Actress Oscar for this until some inopportune and undiplomatic comments from her about the ultra-white Oscar nominations squashed that. But, finally, the film is just not the sort of film that Oscar contests reward.
Almost everything here is understated, Anything genuinely dramatic or visual is muted and subsumed by the behavior of people who have spent 45 years keeping a partnership happy and healthy.
And then, in the film’s final seconds, you’re reminded again – if you somehow forgot – what great film acting is for.
3.5 stars (out of four)
Starring: Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay
Director: Andrew Haigh
Running Time: 95 minutes
Rating: R for language and brief marital sex
The Lowdown: On the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary, a couple finds their happy marriage rocked by unexpected news from 50 years ago.