45 Years begins the way many tense mysteries do—with a dark secret being unearthed. But this is no Nordic crime thriller, or horror film about monsters emerging from the deep. The cold case that’s reopened in 45 Years is a romance, involving a long-ago love of Geoff’s (Tom Courtenay) who died in a hiking accident decades ago. The news that her body has finally been found begins Andrew Haigh’s quietly taut drama, and slowly infects Geoff’s marriage to Kate (Charlotte Rampling) just as they prepare to celebrate their 45th anniversary.
If this sounds like it could be tough going, it is. But 45 Years is methodical in its devastation, chronicling a busier-than-usual week in Kate and Geoff’s quiet, settled life in Norfolk, England, after this dark news breaks. Like Haigh’s last film, the masterful 2011 romantic drama Weekend, it succeeds most with its muted moments, in the stilted pauses and loaded glances Kate can’t avoid as Geoff’s memories begin to take over every part of his life. Haigh brilliantly sidesteps melodrama and clunky exposition as he picks at the margins of this seemingly stable relationship.
His biggest weapon, of course, is Rampling, who manages to convey so much without speaking. It’s perhaps awkward to praise Rampling, who deservingly received an Oscar nomination for her performance, so soon after she aired a host of opinions about “racism against white people” in a French radio interview, but her work in 45 Years is undeniable, a testament to an incredible career of understated performances. Kate is a woman who exudes contentment and confidence in her life: She and Geoff don’t have children and are less sociable than some of their friends, but that’s easily explained by their strong connection.