One of the most bizarre omissions from last week’s Bafta nominations was that Charlotte Rampling did not receive a nod for her heart-breaking turn in Andrew Haigh’s superlative British drama, 45 Years (2015). She and Tom Courtenay appear as a couple approaching their belated 40th wedding anniversary party, suddenly plagued by spectres of the past; grasping, and gasping, for survival. What at first glance appears to be an innocuous relationship examination transforms into the slow revelation of a widening and chilling fracture at its centre. It’s a chasm spanned by two imperious performances and navigated with consummate elegance by Haigh.
While it is Geoff who is initially shaken up by this news, it is Kate with whom Haigh leaves his camera, regarding her as she tries to comfort and empathise before the looming shadow of Katya begins to descend between them. After so long, there is a threat that their marriage will not make it until the next weekend, let alone the next celebratory milestone. Rampling is exquisite. Still and watchful, she quietly tries to hold herself together while the last half century, and her happy but childless marriage, is suddenly cast in a different light be Geoff’s lingering commitment. He is overcome by the notion of his own age, when comparing himself to the pretty, blonde twenty-something he imagines before him – like a ghostly mid-life crisis mingled with the befuddlement of a wave of grief breaking free of a long frozen shoreline.
Each day begins with a title card, giving the approach of their impending party an unsettling sense thriller-esque quality, and film exists in a state of slowly-ratcheting tension whose only release can be Kate’s forgiveness of Geoff’s transgressions. Her foray into the attic, however, a universal symbol of the past if ever there was one, is delivered with such shattering emotional power – and deliberate filmmaking savvy – that treatment for what ails them may already be out of reach. The rural Norfolk setting suggests a landscape of minimal upheaval, but it amplifies the poignancy of this tightly drawn drama that, much like Geoff’s letter, will get under the skin and stick with you for days and weeks to come.