A film in which nothing happens — yet everything happens: 45 Years reviewed

Tom Courtenay gives a subtle performance but most of the credit for the brilliance of the film must lie with director Andrew Haigh and a transfixing Charlotte Rampling

29 August 2015

9:00 AM

29 August 2015

9:00 AM

45 Years

15, Nationwide

Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as a long married couple whose relationship is disturbed by a letter relating to his first girlfriend, a German who died in the Swiss alps 50 years earlier. Aside from that, not much happens. A shopping trip to Norwich is about as exciting as it gets, on the action front. But this is one of those ‘inaction films’, as I call them, in which nothing happens, but everything happens; it is simple yet absorbingly profound. And it will resonate. It will resonate afterwards and it will resonate the next day and it will resonate the day after that. In fact I am still resonating, and rather wish I wasn’t, so I could move on with my own life. It’s rare for a film to affect me in this way. Gemma Bovery didn’t, for example. Nor Avengers.

This is Haigh’s second film as writer and director after Weekend — about a gay relationship; highly recommended — and is based on the short story, ‘In Another Country’, by David Constantine. It opens with Kate (Rampling) walking the dog near the couple’s home, a cottage in Norfolk. The dog is a German shepherd, which already resonates, as why not a Labrador or spaniel, as you’d expect, for a woman of her age and class? Nothing is answered — why not a golden retriever? — but everything sets you thinking, as well as very slightly on edge. She returns home to discover that Geoff (Courtenay), her husband, has received a letter from the Swiss authorities about Katya, who plunged to her death in the mountains in 1962, and has been discovered in a snow melt, perfectly preserved. She has, quite literally, frozen in time. You’d think this was a film about Geoff, about how this shakes him up, but it’s more about Kate, and how it shakes her up. Even when the two of them are in conversation together, the camera is always on her face, and what a face. There is something about Rampling: I could look at her forever. Nothing seems to happen on that face, but at the same time everything happens on that face; every nuance, every hurt, every calibration of feeling. Quite, quite magical, and wholly transfixing.

The plot, such as it is, is driven by the preparations for their 45th wedding anniversary party, to be held in a few days’ time, and which they plough on with, albeit somewhat joylessly, now Katya has come to occupy the space between them. Kate wakes in the night to find Geoff’s side of the bed empty; he’s up in the loft where he’s rediscovered old photographs of him and Katya together. (He was with her when she fell.) Is he trying to get back to a time before, a time before Kate? Is it a yearning for what might have been? If relationships are what define us, where does this leave Kate now? No answers, but to complicate matters further you sense theirs has not been an unhappy marriage. There is love, and they’ve rubbed along well enough, even though they never had children, which seems to be the cause of some pain. Perhaps they are both grieving for the lives they did not live, and perhaps, excessively nostalgically in Geoff’s case. From the snippets we are awarded, Katya does sound quite the flirt.

This always feels real, as well as truthful. Geoff and Kate both feel like actual people, rather than those caricatures of older people so often found in films; the ones who have worked all their stuff out whereas we all probably go on working stuff out until our dying day, and are as likely to have an existential crisis at 77 as we are at… 27. All certainties are fragile, the film sometimes seemed to be saying, but quietly, as this is a quiet film, without even a score. (Thank God, as I’ve heard enough background violins and pianos and cellos to last the life I have lived plus all those I haven’t.) Instead, what music there is comes from what the characters are listening to, or what they might be humming. Kate sometimes hums ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes’, which accompanied their first dance at their wedding. (‘They asked me how I knew, my true love was true…’.)

Courtenay, I should add, also offers a fine and subtle performance, saving Geoff from being the insensitive oaf he might otherwise have been, but this is Rampling’s film, and you won’t be able to get it out of your head. Might Katya have been pregnant? Is the dog a child substitute? Is its German heritage significant? What are we to make of the contrast between the Alps and flatness of Norfolk? Still resonating…

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  • Tamerlane

    Hey everybody Deborah Ross actually likes a film!

    • Magellan

      Well I found it tedious in the extreme

      • Frank Marker

        Although I admire both actors it isn’t particularly one I would want to sit through while chomping through a bucket of popcorn. Now where’s my Terry Thomas boxed set gone to?

        • People seem to like it, though. My 22nd wedding anniversary is tomorrow. I’m probably in the ‘target audience’ for it.

          • Frank Marker

            It’s probably a lot better than the usual pap n crap we are usually subjected too.

          • I bet. Pap, sap, and crap, even.

          • Frank Marker

            Oh happy 22nd too. I do hope him indoors isn’t just taking you to an ‘all you can eat drive in’?

          • Heh heh. I’ve got him a couple of ties and a pair of socks. Romantic or what???

          • SPW

            Resonates 😉

          • You’re all right, SPW.

  • Lex Harper

    That review made me want to go and see a movie I’d never heard of, so job well done!

  • Callipygian

    ‘Dog as child substitute’: a common idea but a mistaken one (even among those that have a dog as imagined preparation for parenthood). Having a dog is parenthood for some, of course (though I think a lot depends on both the human and the dog: some are family pets, some are the genuine children of the family because they can rise to that level of love). But it is and always will be utterly unlike raising human children. I don’t see how it could ever assuage the pain of not having them, if that’s what you want, and I say this as someone that never wanted children yet views my dog as my ‘dogter’.

    • Frank Marker

      Hey Callipygian how old are you in that photo? Cute looking kid though you were, you do look as though you have just had your sherbet fountain snatched from you

      • Thanks Frank, I think I was 7 going on 8 but I’m not sure. Didn’t even know the photo existed until the other day. It looks as though I’m tucking in to one of nanny’s treats, and someone’s taking candid shots.

        • Frank Marker

          Nanny’s treats. Sucking all that sherbet out of those sherbet lemons and eating the black ones first from the wine gum packet. Ah those sweet nostalgic days.

          • That’s making me laugh! I also loved the lemon cream cookies (about a million calories and anyway they don’t sell them here)….

          • Frank Marker

            They won’t here either if the Cook Master General Jamie Oliver has anything to do with it.

          • Oh god!!!

  • James

    German shepherds are not middle class? You learn something new every day.

    • Frank Marker

      When I were a nipper back in the 60s and 70s they were the dog of choice for the council estate dweller, supplanted by the pitbull in the 80s/90s of course.

    • Frank Marker

      Everyone knows yer German shepherd is a damned foreign arriviste.

    • Mine’s a Boxer. Never understood the appeal of Alsatians, myself. Don’t like the colouring, don’t like the wolfy look, don’t like that sloping back end. Give me instead the natural floppy ears of the Boxer (one of its best features), the gorgeous glossy coat, and the perky posture!

  • SPW

    resonate resonate resonate resonate yawn

  • SPW

    All biog and plot Ms Ross. Where’s the film review? Review the film please Ms Ross – not your response to it.

    • Take out all the interest, you mean. I think Debs is a fabulous reviewer.

      • Frank Marker

        Rather like Dorothy Parker’s theatre reviews. You never read them for a description of the plot but merely for her wit and humour.

        • There you go!

        • SPW

          Surely you are not comparing this article with anything that might have been written by DP? This is super-personal formulaic verbiage. She picks a personal witticism and then uses it ‘tickishly’ from beginning to end. Resonate? Around this flimsy frame she then gushes about how she was amazed or bored or confused or angered or delighted or asleep etc etc etc depending on nothing of note.

          I have read the Speccie for decades and DR film reviews are the low-point every week. Can you imagine any of the book reviewers spouting such froth with such persistence?

          She is a writer – obviously – but she is not a reviewer.

  • Breah Olczak

    This is quite possibly the best movie I have ever seen! And, certainly one of the best acted, especially by Rampling. She speaks with her eyes, her face, and you feel every twisting ounce of pain as if it were your own. I cannot believe the people who slam this film as boring, I was on the edge of my seat. Although this film is about an old couple after 45 yrs. together, it has the most haunting, foreboding tone I’ve ever felt. Stronger than any horror movie!! And that is how it felt….like a horror movie. The ending reminded me of the ending of Old Boy. That smile twisting into pure horror and pain!!! Rampling exudes every feeling through expression. You know exactly what she’s feeling, she doesn’t need to say it. And the horror behind it all…..My whole life was a lie? Who is this man I’ve been married to for 45 yrs, happily?? Our entire time together haunted by a ghost, and she never even really knew……in the end, the husband, I believe truly realized the error of his ways. But, by that twisting pain on his wifes face when she drops his hand in that last scene, it is just too late!

  • sheila skelhorn

    This movie is far from boring in my opinion. Ive watched It a couple if Times And Charlotte rampling absolutley nailed It. Her facial expressions were fabulous. 45. Left me To think that kate(Charlotte rampling) realised She was a substitué wife who bumbling geoff was trying To replace, The ending brought me To tears personally i think Kate leaves geoff.