Not every ghost story involves the supernatural, not every haunting means that the spirits mean something malicious. At its core 45 Years is a ghost story, not the stuff of diaphanous whisps or screeching banshees, but a presence of a perfectly pedestrian, yet no less devastating, kind.
It’s Monday, and Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) are planning to celebrate their wedding anniversary on the coming weekend. The two dote on each other the way that old couples do with a mix of shorthand, affection, and tedium that any such relationship contains. They discuss whether they should use a Platters song as their first dance, echoing the ceremony from decades earlier.
A letter arrives in German – a body has been found in a crevasse on a Swiss mountain near the Italian border. The body is perfectly preserved (like those seen in documentaries the couple discuss), and the husband is torn. He seems distant, insisting he must have told his wife about this woman, surely. He must have mentioned the accident, her loss, his going on and creating a new life.
It’s this new spirit that comes between these two, and as day by day we watch the party preparations proceed while this specter increasingly haunts their interactions it’s that conflict that becomes the core conceit of this breathtaking film. As his sneaks a cigarette, or prepares for an alpine journey by seeing if he can walk to the village unaided, she grows increasingly distant and suspicious.
The film’s power is bolstered by some sublime core performances. The breezy connection between Rampling and Courtenay is immediately captivating, showcasing two talents honed through years of experience. Director Andrew Haigh (2011’s Weekend) provides a light touch as well, providing an inviting but subtle palate on which the drama unfolds.
The soundtrack plays an absolutely vital ingredient, cheekily making overt some of the film’s more opaque themes. Pay special attention the playlist for the celebration, particularly the last group, and how it foreshadows in the most delicious way the end credit track.
There are no blood curdling screams in this ghost story, no moment where fury and rage take over for quiet seething. This is a beautifully British film – restrained, hampered, a stiff-upper-lip belying the turmoil within. Yet the past is no less powerful, the results no less devastating, the shame and distrust no less horrifying.
A film of quiet and grace with a core as black as night, the film is a decidedly adult twist on how a dead body can invade the sanctity of a couple’s happiness even from miles away. Powerful, wonderfully realized, and with a real bite, 45 Years provides a mature and unique spin on love, fear, hate, and the sometimes fine lines that separate these spheres of human emotion.
The Upside: One gets a real sense about how spending half a century with someone still means you can be surprised by them.
The Downside: One gets a real sense about how spending half a century with someone still means you barely know them.