Andrew Haigh's 45 Years begins on a misty Monday morning, with a woman walking her German shepherd across the broads of the English countryside. It's a daily routine for Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling), letting the dog off leash so he can forge, and forage, ahead. After a good stroll, Kate returns to the cottage she shares with her husband, Geoff (Tom Courtenay), slips off her coat and her rubber boots, and looks through the mail.
On the first day of the six that are documented in this deep and devastating study of a marriage, there is a letter from the Swiss authorities, in German, about someone Geoff had known a half-century ago, his first love, before Kate. Geoff and the girl had been backpacking across Europe. There was an accident on a high pass in the Alps.
The news in the mail comes as a complete surprise, a bolt, a jolt. Geoff has to rummage through the garage to find his old German-English dictionary, to be sure he reads the letter right. Kate helps.
"I can hardly be cross with something that happened before we existed, can I?" she says later. But Kate is cross, and more. Like a horror movie where the seeming tranquility and stability of a family is slowly, methodically upended by a presence in the basement, rumbling behind the walls, a ghost, a demon, in 45 Years this unexpected missive triggers its own kind of destruction.
Two well-off retirees, full of shared memories, snug in their house, comfortable in their quotidian rituals, ready to celebrate their 45th anniversary with a big bash in town, have been invaded, taken hostage. There's a stranger in the house.
Adapted from the David Constantine short story "In Another Country," Haigh's 45 Years is a study in economy, in the beautiful symmetry of word and image and music. That the writer/director has cast two icons of cinema whose careers were born in the British New Wave (Courtenay in The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Billy Liar, Rampling in The Knack and Georgy Girl), gives the film even greater resonance: With its playlist of 1960s pop hits (Kate has been asked to suggest songs for the anniversary fete), with its two principals forced to survey their respective and collective pasts, 45 Years is very much about lost youth.
It is also very much about trust, jealousy, forgiveness, and regret. Rampling, who rightly received a best actress academy award nomination for her performance, evokes the battle going on inside of Kate - the hurt, the doubt, the chasm that's opened before her - with the smallest of gestures, a wariness in the eyes. (Those icy, sentient Rampling eyes!) It's a remarkably quiet and internal turn, not a false note, not a shard of excess.
Courtenay plays Geoff as a fuzzy, absent-minded fellow, staring off into the middle distance, his everyday calm taken from him, now, as he remembers this other woman. But has he been remembering her all along?, the picture asks. And Kate, in her way, poses the same question.
45 Years is modest in scale, a portrait of one couple, off in the east of England, about to celebrate their lives together with a jolly gathering of friends. Yet the movie, thanks to Rampling and Courtenay and Haigh, is momentous, too - challenging us to consider the nature of intimacy itself. It gets right to the very heart of things, a place that Kate and Geoff, for all their time together, may never have truly explored.
45 Years **** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Andrew Haigh. With Tom Courtenay, Charlotte Rampling, and Geraldine James. Distributed by Sundance Selects/IFC.
Running time: 1 hour, 35 mins.
Parent's guide: R (adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five.