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.