“45 Years” – In six days, Kate and Geoff Mercer (Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay) will celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary in a sizeable ballroom with a couple hundred friends. Planning for such an event can create stress or anxiety for any couple, but for The Mercers, this particular week will clearly stand out from the previous 2,339 weeks of their marriage for a very different – and much more serious – reason.
As the picture begins, however, life does not appear too serious or worrisome for two retirees living a comfortable existence in a beautiful country home among green pastures near the east coast of England. With busy careers in their rearview mirrors, Kate spends a pleasant and tranquil Monday morning walking her German Shepherd named Max, while Geoff sits at the kitchen table and opens up the mail. Very quickly, however, Geoff – in a state of shock – reads very surprising contents of one particular letter, and it involves an event in his past before their marriage. In director Andrew Haigh’s picture, he conducts a riveting narrative by reintroducing this happening in Geoff’s life from over four decades ago. This presents new questions for the couple which reveal themselves over a slow burn from Monday to Saturday, the day of their anniversary.
Rampling and Courtenay offer masterful performances in this quietly explosive drama by conveying (and swallowing) deep-seeded emotions over important and philosophical conversations throughout the week. The Mercers are a congenial couple with almost a half century of history, and they intimately know each other’s mannerisms, habits and preferences as well as their own, however, during this fateful week, the foundation of their marriage does not crack, but – in an even worse scenario – gradually becomes foreign to Kate. Haigh effectively sets the tone when guiding us through this figurative emotional “death march” by introducing each day with a black screen and tiny white font which spells out “Monday”, “Tuesday”, “Wednesday”, etc., and then the day’s events begin under cloudy, British daylight with a lurking, dark undercurrent.
The Mercers relationship is the film’s main focal point, but Haigh mostly concentrates on Kate during each day. Geoff’s behavior – due to the letter’s contents – changes subtly throughout the week, but the audience spends a majority of the days with Kate. We sit, walk or drive with her as her co-pilot while she processes her thoughts. Whether Kate takes a boat ride and stares at the lonely, empty countryside or plays the murkiest song on her piano this side of “The Phantom of the Opera”, Rampling perfectly conveys her character’s emotions with a purposely minimalist effort. Her work rightfully garnered a Best Actress Oscar nomination, and she equally delivers her best moments when Kate reflects in solitude and also when she confronts Geoff.
When dealing with complex emotions inside the self-contained four walls of a marriage, the lead actors need to command the audience’s attention. Rampling and Courtenay successfully do this through slight nuances in mood or cadence during ordinary and personal exchanges inside of – and sometimes outside – the home. They open up this couple’s personal life through a sharply written screenplay which carefully considers every single word and every single moment during the 95-minute runtime. When the essence of this 45-year marriage unexpectedly teeters on the brink of potential bankruptcy, we, the audience, take attentive notice, but is the damage temporary or permanent? “45 Years” does answer this question and gives us reasons to celebrate or not celebrate Kate and Geoff’s Saturday night in the one of the most memorable films of 2015.
Image credits: Artificial Eye; Trailer credits: IFC Films