The first sound we hear in 45 Years is the recurrent click of a slide projector. Photographs are the film’s principal totems, dusted off in dim attics and shining from the screens of smartphones, though of course there are others as well: scraps of song, slips of paper, pressed flowers. But for Kate and Geoff Mercer (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay), an English couple pried apart on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary, such fragments don’t freeze the past in place so much as expose its essential slipperiness. Casting the work of grief and the passage of time in the vernacular of waves, cyclical and unceasing, writer-director Andrew Haigh’s exquisite two-hander calls into question the relationship between the lives we lead and the artifacts we accumulate. In 45 Years, memories are mercurial substances, always threatening to turn the ache of nostalgia into the pain of regret.
As in his winsome debut feature, Weekend, or on HBO’s Looking, Haigh’s understated aesthetic conceals a careful hand. While the action of 45 Years is confined to a single week, it nonetheless rummages through a half-century of personal history. When Geoff receives word that the body of his former lover has been discovered in Switzerland, decades after she fell to her death in an Alpine crevasse, the news sends the Mercers reeling. “It’s like she’s been standing in the corner of the room all this time, behind my back,” Kate says later, as if Geoff had been carrying on an affair. “It’s tainted everything.”
Though Geoff’s grief shadows the film as surely as the gunmetal pall of the countryside, Haigh departs from the source material, David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country,” to focus on Kate’s response. As Geoff pores over mementos he’s long since secreted away, Courtenay’s stricken presence ripples across Rampling’s face like a stone dropped in still water. Taken together, their remarkable performances become a single, seamless entity, measuring each flicker of emotion with the precision of a seismograph.
It’s the summative effect of these modest exchanges, unspooling one after another in long, tranquil shots, that lends 45 Years its profound sense of loss. “We don’t realize it at the time, but those memories—they’re the things, aren’t they?” Kate suggests at one point, straining for optimism, yet the film ultimately severs the Mercers’ memories from their material referents. In the course of six days, for example, a few bars of Gary Puckett & the Union Gap’s “Young Girl” become impossible to bear, the lyrics’ dispatch from Geoff and Kate’s dual biography now subject to revision. “You’ve kept the secret of your youth…Now it hurts to know the truth,” the song proclaims, its romance suddenly soured, and on such treacherous terrain 45 Years is at its most sure-footed. None of us can skirt memory’s crevasses.
By the time the click of the projector returns, accompanied by the sound of crashing waves, Kate’s confrontation with totems from a past she can neither change nor prevent sends 45 Years hurtling toward its finale. Even the Mercers’ wedding song, the Platters’ swooning “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” now cuts to the quick: Swaying to the tune in the film’s last scene, at the anniversary celebration to which their trying week has been building all along, Kate’s unforgettable gesture condenses two lifetimes’ worth of grief into a single, shattering image. As Haigh’s portrait of fragile memories and broken hearts suggests, time heals no wounds: To remember is necessarily to mourn, for the past is always already irrevocable.
Andrew Haigh supervised this 2K digital transfer of 45 Years, as to ensure that every frame has been appropriately color-timed and given proper image clarity. Each successive scene provides a plethora of rich visual detail, from the interior of Kate and Geoff’s unassumingly decorated home to the spaces of the Norfolk countryside where Kate often finds herself lost in contemplation. Even more quotidian scenes, as when Geoff smokes on a park-side bench, exude a vibrancy that’s striking for their play with color and perspective. The DTS-HD soundtrack is expertly calibrated to capture the film’s ample use of ambient sound, so that a gentle breeze or a dog’s distant bark take on an added significance. This Blu-ray presentation will be the definitive home-disc version of the film for the foreseeable future.
The disc's extras provide informative context for both the film's production and Haigh's entire creative process. An engaging commentary track with the director and producer Tristan Goligher takes the wise approach of staying keyed into the logic behind the artistic choices made in each scene. Haigh is an especially charming presence and not afraid to point out seldom gaffes, as when a bystander can be seen filming Charlotte Rampling's character with a smartphone during one of 45 Years's street scenes. A behind-the-scenes documentary features talking-head interviews with the cast and crew, who explain their role in the production process and share tidbits about their unique contributions. Rampling and Tom Courtenay are especially delightful as they divulge reservations that each of them had about being capable of actualizing the screenplay's challenging intimacy. An interview with author David Constantine, whose short story served as the film's basis, explains how his prose compares with Haigh's film. A trailer and an essay by critic Ella Taylor round out this suitably information-packed group of extras.
45 Years, Andrew Haigh's haunting sophomore feature, receives a flawless transfer and a helpful lot of production-oriented supplements from the Criterion Collection.