Forty-five years is a long time to be married. It’s a long time for anything. If you consider the implications of living with someone for that amount of time then, by the very nature of us as human beings, there’s bound to be as many things said as there are unsaid.
Marriage is a sacred vow, but sadly we are prone to keeping secrets in order to spare the other person’s feelings, for better or for worse. It’s these secrets that can fester when hidden, uncoiling themselves into the cold light of day when you least expect them to.
Such a secret is kept by Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) from his wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling), a middle-class couple whose 45-year wedding anniversary is but a week away. When a letter arrives for Geoff explaining that the body of an ex-lover from nearly 50 years previous has been found frozen in the ice of the Swiss Alps (yep, you read that right), there’s an instant expectation that the film could switch into Fortitude mode – Courtenay scouring snow-swept mountains and perilous glaciers for his long-lost love. But no. Events stay much more low-key, and 45 Years plays out all the better for it.
This is a film about repression, guilt, heartache and loneliness between two people who should, to all intents and purposes, know each other inside out. But to sum it up in such a way does a disservice to what’s on offer. There are many moments of black comedy in the naturalistic dialogue between the two leads that show they really are two old pros absolutely at the top of their game; the film’s muted, unfussy camerawork and non-existent soundtrack amplifying all that’s said (and unsaid) between them.
In the hands of Lars von Trier or Michael Haneke, 45 Years could have been an exercise in emotional button-pushing – seeing how much pain and heartbreak the audience could take before calling it quits. But director Andrew Haigh laces the mood with all the warmth and genuine love you’d expect from a couple who have spent their entire lives together. For all the cracks that start to show, there’s a glue that (just about) keeps the Mercers in each other’s arms – even after dark secrets have been aired.
It’s not a stretch to compare 45 Years to von Trier’s avant-garde Dogme 95 movement in so much as it doesn’t once stray into genre fiction. There are no smashed plates and no blazing arguments, just two pensioners facing a difficult time in their lives, trying their best to keep the status quo. If that sounds in any way boring, trust me – it ain’t. The sound of a slide carousel may never be the same again.
By David Petty