45 Years: A Marriage in Turmoil

This piece will serve as an entry in my ongoing series of reviews centered around films in the Criterion Collection. For those who are unfamiliar with the Criterion Collection, think of it as an international film club, full of films that represent the best that cinema can offer. The collection covers a variety of eras in film, through a host of languages and countries, contemporary and classic. For dedicated cinephiles, the curious moviegoer, or just someone who desires inherent value in their experience of watching film, these reviews will explain and dissect these achievements of cinema.   

45 Years (2015)

Dir.: Andrew Haigh





Nearly every married couple that stays together for more than a few years eventually arrives at a point where the flirtations and the initial spark give way to complacency. There’s nothing wrong with being satisfied with the way things are, but complacency has the tendency to breed contempt, as well as hidden desires from the deepest depths of the psyche, or perhaps a longing to take up missed opportunities from the past. 45 Years tells of a couple mostly content with the way things are, only to be shaken up once news of a former lover reaches their ears. As a tale told during a week’s period leading up to the couple’s 45-year anniversary, with a decidedly minimalist cast and an airtight script, the film employs "slice of life" storytelling to wondrous cinematic effect. With a remarkable lead performance from Charlotte Rampling, the audience journeys with the actress through an emotional rollercoaster, as her character is forced to re-evaluate her marriage that she has spent most her life in, with varying degrees of paranoia, dread, and heartache.

The narrative of the film recounts a single week, which allows the viewer an intimate timeline to watch both characters’ marriage slowly morph from a happy, complacent serenity, into a morose, suspicious game of words and emotional inhibition, or oftentimes the lack thereof. Tom Courtenay's and Charlotte Rampling’s performances are the centerpiece here, as theirs are the only characters that develop throughout the course of the film. Luckily, their chemistry is palpable and believable, and Rampling takes center stage as the faithful wife who tries her best to turn a blind eye to her husband’s ill-fated passions, to no avail. Rampling’s acting speaks even when her character doesn't; she has fully embodied this role and become Kate Mercer. Though 45 Years is concerned with the twisting and turning of the wife’s view of her husband in her head, but it does a compelling job of leaving her as the protagonist, as the argument the film makes is mostly one-sided. Nevertheless, the quality of the week-act structure combined with Rampling’s excellent portrayal of a woman who has spent over half of her life being taken advantage of make this argument more than compelling enough for the viewer to care about both characters overall. 45 Years provides such an immersive experience that whether you’re 20, 45, or 70, you know where both characters stand, and you sympathize with them.

The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray hosts some interesting special features that make the post-watching experience with the film more worthwhile. An essay written by Ella Taylor helps to contextualize how director Andrew Haigh mixes the subtle performances with realistic, emotional dialogue to craft a provocative narrative that remains captivating. A “Making Of” featurette, featuring Rampling, Courtenay, Haigh and others, describes the process of crafting the film, and they discuss its merits, and what it means to each of them. An interview with the writer of the short story the film is based on, David Constantine, supplements the film’s legacy by detailing how Haigh adapted this story for the cinematic format. Finally, an audio commentary with Haigh and producer Tristan Goligher discusses the film scene by scene, and shows how Haigh’s creative process crafts a triumphant familial story that gradually bends and threatens to break.

Veteran cinematic audiences often tire of romantic films where the narrative takes second base to good-looking actors and actresses, films where the performances are arbitrary and the main goal is to placate a singular, easily sated audience with lowest common denominator filmmaking. It’s such a relief that filmmakers like Andrew Haigh exist: filmmakers that can take a romance, even one that’s in the twilight of old age and harboring a melancholy tinge, and craft a universal tale that all audiences can relate to. 45 Years proves itself to be far more than a film about elderly lovers making cliché “old people” jokes and discussing matters of no consequence. Rampling’s performance, Haigh’s directing and screenplay, and the cinematography all mesh into a tale that betrays its scope, one that is mutually resonant and heartbreaking. It’s not a film to watch if you do not prefer to pay attention to detail, as the performance are blink-and-you’ll-miss-them precise, but for the Criterion audience, it’s a great portrayal of a marriage that may or may not have been falsely founded.   

45 Years holds a place in the Criterion Collection, and would be a worthy addition to any cinephile's personal library. It can be found at our affiliate link by clicking the link below: