Emily Bronte’s singular novel, Wuthering Heights, begins its telling of a tumultuous love story by ensuring that the romance is dead on arrival. In Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, the marriage is similarly mordant, yet ground in a spectreless rural reality, the death arrives in epistolary form: Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) receives a letter informing him that the corpse of Katya, his first love, has been unearthed on a melting glacier in Switzerland. His wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling), possessed of an obsidian composure, is the one who must navigate the brittle nature of the relationship away from maelstrom as the week stretches forth towards the party – the event to celebrate Geoff and Kate’s 45th wedding anniversary, postponed five years due to Geoff’s emergency bypass surgery. The film finds its Woolfian essence in a superficial rotation of events around the party, yet like Mrs Dalloway, which so tries to preoccupy itself with novelties such as flower buying, the fractures of psychological torment are ultimately unavoidable.
45 Years is a film which holds its power in subtleties – the progressive crumbling of foundations and the established certainties of marriage. The pensive sadness is reflected in the coloration of the scenes: a blurring of juniper green and teal, complemented by the dark canals and flat marshes of the Norfolk Broads. This is the dissolution of a partnership in a very English way; the reluctance of conversation, jilted encounters in tea rooms, silent bathtub breakdowns, but most of all the pretence, the continued pretence, the obsessively perfected facade captured most memorably in a line of Kate’s: “it’s one thing me knowing that I wasn’t enough for you. It’s quite another to have everyone else knowing that too.” The Mercers are scrupulous in their avoidance of the issue, coming closest to the acknowledgement of their marital breakdown in a suggestively metaphorical conversation about climate change and the fissures in a Swiss glacier.
Although Courtenay is remarkable, bringing a laconic, stoic presence to Geoff’s unremitting selfishness, it is by Rampling and her hooded eyed melancholy that we are continually captivated. This is Geoff’s mistake, but it is Kate’s story: through her silent breakdowns, her self-instilled stoicism, we witness the falling apart of a marriage. 45 Years never really answers the questions that it poses (can we ever, even after over four decades, guarantee that we chose to spend our life with the right person? And what do we do when we realise we were never quite enough for someone?) but it doesn’t seem to matter, because some questions will always be unanswerable, as dictated by the human condition, and Haigh’s film is effortlessly beautiful, in its silence and its pensiveness.