At the molten core of 45 Years is an exchange between the long-married husband and wife who are the subject of this admirable British drama. Reassessing their relationship, Geoff asks Kate if she now feels that she was not enough for him; she replies, somewhat acerbically, that she knows she was enough for him, she's just not sure that he knows it.
It is one thing to write successfully about the private world of marriage in fiction – 45 Years is adapted from a short story by British author David Constantine – in which interior monologue can be used to reveal each partner's secrets; it is a greater achievement to successfully depict it on film, through which only the actors' facial expressions can reveal what each one is not telling the other. Stung to suddenly discover that her husband is still carrying the torch for a long-dead girlfriend, Kate tells him that she is full of thoughts she can't speak.
And, yet, we are privy to all of it, thanks mainly to Charlotte Rampling's Oscar-nominated performance as Kate, encapsulating in every gentle gesture or soft look her patience with her struggling husband (Tom Courtenay), betraying in every crinkle of her brow or narrowing of her eyes her surprising new suspicions.
The film begins with the arrival of a letter informing Geoff that the body of his girlfriend, who fell down a crevasse in the Swiss Alps during a mountaineering holiday 50 years earlier, has emerged from underneath a melting glacier. Coincidentally, Kate is in the midst of planning a big party for their 45th wedding anniversary, an event that has taken on special importance because their 40th was upstaged by Geoff's bypass surgery.
At first, there is a certain awkwardness to the premise and to the actors' delivery of dialogue adapted from the story by director Andrew Haigh himself; Haigh's script initially feels a bit flat-footed. But within a scene or two all this is forgotten and the film takes flight as Haigh and his principals manage the remarkable feat of turning what is, after all, no more than the mere possibility of an entirely theoretical betrayal into a searing emotional drama.
For its quiet imagery, the film depends heavily on the pleasant interior of the couple's middle-class home with its attic loft full of secrets sitting just above their heads, an element taken directly from Constantine's story. But Haigh also makes powerful use of the Norfolk Broads in early spring as his exterior backdrop; the low marshlands and flat waterways, in symbolic opposition to the tragedy in the unseen Alps, hint at the vast, grey and perhaps deceptively calm expanse of long lives and long relationships.
As it questions the nature of the thing that Geoff and Kate were preparing to celebrate, 45 Years exposes the paradoxical balance of the successful marriage, one that requires a sentimental suspension of disbelief on the one hand and a hard-headed ability to deal with the everyday on the other.
Courtenay is excellent, punctuating the doddering Geoff's self-absorption with moments of heart-breaking frailty that will inspire in moviegoers the same combination of annoyance and affection they probably feel toward their own aging loved ones.
Rampling's Kate is a more youthful and more competent figure and perhaps a bit superior about that: She's likeable, but you suspect she may have long assumed she was the half of the couple who was adored.
Ultimately, the emotional heart of 45 Years belongs to her character's journey, and the film to Rampling: What the actress achieves in its surprising final seconds is worth an Oscar all to itself.