When I first got married, I used to fantasize about a 40th wedding anniversary. As one character in 45 Years puts it, a good marriage is “so full of history”. I couldn’t wait to start living forty or more years of history with the woman I was marrying and to one day hopefully celebrate how we beat the odds and stood the test of time. We lasted a little more than four years.
I knew that marriage would be hard. Literally everyone I knew who had ever walked down an aisle warned me of this and I really did think I understood what they meant. But nothing could prepare me for the seemingly impossible choices and challenges that awaited me. If I, as keen and committed as I was, couldn’t last 5 years, what does it take to make it to 45? I’ve often thought about the kinds of compromises the couples that last would have to make, the things they’d need to talk about, and the things they’d need to avoid talking about.
45 Years looks at what happens when a happily married couple are faced with one of those subjects that they got along just fine without talking about just one week before their 45th anniversary party. Five years before he married Kate, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) lost his girlfriend in a tragic hiking accident. Fifty years later, he gets a letter telling him that her body has been found.
Initially, Kate (Charlotte Rampling) can’t understand why Geoff is so preoccupied with this development. Once she realizes how much he wants to talk about his memories of her, she tries her best to be supportive and starts to ask questions about her husband’s former lover. Although she seems genuinely curious at first, she starts to regret her questions when his answers make it more and more clear that her husband’s previous relationship may have been more serious than she’d been led to believe.
Kate’s jealousy of a woman that died fifty years ago is fascinating. She always knew that Geoff’s last relationship didn’t so much end as was cut tragically short but she seemed to always avoid asking herself the hard questions. Would he have married her had she lived? How often does he think of the life he could have had with her?
What makes a good marriage? 45 years seems to suggest it’s as full of little white lies as it is of history and explores whether a seemingly strong partnership can withstand being shaken up by a little truth. Of course, these are polite old British people in a British movie so the distance that begins to develop between husband and wife may not express itself explosively enough for some audiences. This is a restrained film with restrained performances where the drama comes as much from what is NOT said as from the dialogue itself. Luckily, Courtenay and Rampling are masters of subtlety. Oscar-nominee Rampling in particular is captivating both with the brave face she puts on and the unshakeable doubt that she occasionally shows us. She gives a performance that is way too honest and low-key to ever win her an Oscar. But she gets my vote.