Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years tells a domestic tale that sounds familiar in its broad outlines: that of a long-lasting marriage that undergoes a profound shift as a result of a blinding revelation that brings up a well of behavioral changes and attendant doubts. In this particular case, the revelation comes early in the film, as Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) gets a letter in the mail that informs him that the body of his first love, Katya, has been discovered in the Swiss Alps. Though he repeatedly tells his wife, Kate (Charlotte Rampling), that he still loves her, she begins to fixate on signs that suggest otherwise: Among other things, he takes up smoking again and rummages around the attic late at night to look for photographic mementoes of his long-lost old flame. All of this takes place mere days before their wedding-anniversary party; similar to Alex Ross Perry in Queen of Earth, Haigh structures his film around the days of the week leading up to the anniversary bash, with title cards marking each day.
As was the case with his debut feature, Weekend, Haigh works in a familiar slow-burn mode, one in which high drama and extravagant visual invention is generally suppressed in favor of close observation of human behavior—or, at least, the convincing appearance of it. In some ways, though, the restraint is appropriate to the characters and milieu: These elderly characters are settled in their ways, after all, living a comfortable life in the English countryside, daily routine and all. Tellingly, each new day is shown beginning with a dog walk—at least until Kate’s suspicions begin to throw off her routine as the week goes on.
Basically a showcase for Haigh’s finely tuned screenplay and the performances of its two leads, 45 Years is arguably above all Rampling’s show: We’re meant to see the enigmatic aspects of Courtenay’s character through Kate’s curious perspective, and Rampling reveals her character’s increasingly obsessive frustration with a vivid emotional transparency that explodes, to quietly devastating effect, in an extended final shot that suggests that, even if Kate finds the answers she seeks, their paradise has perhaps been forever soiled.
A similar autumnal air blows through Mr. Holmes, though in the case of Bill Condon’s new film, the theme of world-weary reflection that Haigh subtly touches on in 45 Years is brought out in the open here. The Holmes of the title is, in fact, the famous Arthur Conan Doyle gumshoe Sherlock Holmes, but in Condon’s adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s A Slight Trick of the Mind, his mystery-solving days are long over: We now see him addicted to opium, losing his memory, and seemingly more interested in tending to his bee colony than anything else.
Initially, the film intrigues with its revisionist details: Here, a long-gone Dr. Watson is revealed to have essentially printed the legend in turning his friend’s exploits into published stories; 221B Baker Street turns out to have been a fake address to ward off the general public; and so on. Eventually, though, a new mystery takes shape for Holmes (Ian McKellen), revolving around his attempts to finally solve, once and for all, the as-yet-unsolved mystery that led him to call it quits on his detective career. His efforts are encouraged by young Roger (Milo Parker), the son of Holmes’s increasingly exasperated current maid, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney).
The central mystery of Mr. Holmes, however, is more emotional in nature than simply procedural. Without giving away any specific details, it turns out that there was a personal reason that Holmes’s final case led him to turn away from detective work. If, previously, he had relied on a purely intellectual perspective founded on a deeply misanthropic view of humanity to help him solve cases, the ultimately tragic outcome of his investigation of the strange behavior of Thomas Kelmot’s (Patrick Kennedy) wife, Ann (Hattie Morahan), profoundly shakes Holmes, revealing the limits of his cynicism, forcing him to contemplate aspects of human nature that he had never thought to contemplate before. It’s enough for him to decide that he cannot go on with his life’s work anymore, leaving him to face the possibility of a life drowning in regret.
None of this would have been half as affecting if it weren’t for McKellen: As ever with this great actor at the top of his form, he marries an obvious love of performance with a mature wisdom underneath the extroversion. Condon’s film operates much the same way: As entertaining as it is on the surface, there’s a deeply moving sense of greater, grimmer truths being imparted.
Berlinale runs from February 5—15.