How many great movies could be written across the enigmatic, profound face of Charlotte Rampling? Hundreds? Thousands? At any rate, Andrew Haigh's "45 Years" is one of them.
In it, Rampling stars as half of a childless couple — Kate and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) Mercer — preparing to celebrate their 45th anniversary. In minutes, we can already feel jealousy welling in us from snapshots of their peaceful, harmonious lives in rural England: dog walks, drinking tea and taking leisurely trips into town.
That such appearances of elderly tranquility are not what they seem is one of the notions upended by "45 Years." A letter arrives for Geoff with startling news that the frozen body of the woman he dated before meeting Kate has been found in a Swiss glacier where she died in an accident while traveling with Geoff more than 50 years ago. "Like something in the freezer," mumbles an astonished Geoff.
"She'd look like what she did in 1962," he says. "And I look like this."
The news unsettles Geoff, transporting him back to his mid-20s self, unmooring an iceberg of the past. Confessions follow, revealing a deeper history than Kate was before aware. She watches with increasing alarm as her husband begins smoking again and rummaging around the attic late at night for pictures of his old flame. Their previously rock-solid relationship is suddenly beset with fissures and tremors erupted by a history that isn't so ancient, after all.
Haigh, who is 42, has made the HBO series "Looking" and the excellent independent film "Weekend." That movie dealt with two gay men whose one-night stand is extended across a weekend, during which a remarkable intimacy accumulates as they examine their night together and contemplate their connection.
For Haigh, relationships are forged in a moment, crystalized in the circumstances of their beginnings. Kate and Geoff may be in their 70s, but their marriage is still built upon — and haunted by — whatever brought them together in their 20s. Old age has done far less to change them than most would think.
The devastating power of "45 Years," which Haigh adapted from David Constantine's short story "In Another Country," lies in the director's sensitive understanding of relationships: of the conversations that take place over pillows and the quiet contemplation of fates abandoned in marriage.
But it's Haigh's tremendous lead actors that make the movie. They're a convincing couple: Courtenay is absent-minded and untidy; Rampling is cool and controlled. As Kate sees a new rival to her husband rise from the dead, the anxieties and confusions flicker across Rampling's face. Turmoil stirs beneath her chilly stillness.
If going to see "45 Years" (and you should), choose your date wisely. After the film's haunting final shot, you're likely to be exiting the theater wondering just how well you really know the companion next to you.
"45 Years," an IFC Films release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "language and brief sexuality." Running time: 95 minutes. Four stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
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