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Oscars Round Up: ’45 Years’ a remarkable study in dramatic restraint


With the Academy Awards coming up this Sunday, the LV film team has been reflecting on some of the nominees. Let this week of reviews be your cheat sheet as you make your Oscar predictions! Also, check out the article from Issue 193 on the Englert/FilmScene Hollywood Live! party.

Here, John Rigby reviews ’45 Years.’ Star Charlotte Rampling is nominated for a Best Actress award.

Midway through Andrew Haigh’s superb 45 Years, wife Kate and husband Geoff share a dance in their living room to a favorite song from the earlier years of their marriage. The track is Leroy Price’s propulsive 1961 version of “Stagger Lee,” a song that centers around an explosive and fatal act of violence between two people.

While Haigh’s movie is absent of such heightened violence, tension between its two main characters simmers beneath almost every scene — watching this tension build is one of the many pleasures I found in 45 Years. The result is not only a portrait of a marriage that could be unraveling at the seams, but also an example of both assured directing by Haigh and masterful acting by its two lead performers, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay.

The film examines a five-day period in the life of Kate and Geoff, who live a simple, quiet existence in an idyllic English cottage. We don’t know much about them, other than they are both retired and are childless. Less than a week before the ceremony celebrating their 45th year together, Geoff receives a sudden, stunning piece of news: the body of Katya, his girlfriend before he met Kate, has finally been discovered, decades after a fatal accident in the Swiss mountains.

Best Actress nominee Charlotte Rampling in '45 Years'
Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay in a screenshot from Andrew Haigh’s ’45 Years.’

As the week goes on, Jeff’s persona changes. He becomes withdrawn, taking long walks into the town village. He begins smoking cigarettes again, and he visits a local travel agency to inquire about flights to Switzerland so he can identify Katya’s remains in person. Kate handles the revelation just as problematically. Wanting to know more about Katya, she investigates behind Geoff’s back. One particular scene includes a discovery by Kate that powerfully contradicts both her decades spent with Geoff and his brief relationship with Katya.

Most impressively, 45 Years is also a remarkable study in dramatic restraint. Haigh takes his time telling the story, but he never undermines it with sentimentality or clunky melodrama. He avoids big emotional speeches. Instead, he shows the doubt and indignation between his two leads through subtle movements and gestures, and through piercing moments of silence. One recurring and devastating motif involving the turning off of a bedside lamp tells you more about the condition of Kate and Geoff’s marriage than any line of dialogue ever could.

Both Courtenay and Rampling are incredible, but this is really the latter’s movie. Rampling’s acting here is revelatory not for what she displays, but for what she doesn’t. It is honest, provocative, and an amazing display of economy. I don’t think I saw a better performance by lead actor in 2015.

Though the scope of the film is small, 45 Years asks big questions: How does our past influence our present? How strong, or how fragile, are the bonds that sustain us? And when those bonds are tested, how well do we know those closest to us, and how well do we know ourselves?


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