45 Years (Oscar Nominee 2016)

45 Years (2015)
Dir: Andrew Haigh

A well-written sense of maturity and British reserve make this a well-observed examination of something playing on your mind and the inability to shake it.

Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) and her husband Geoff (Sir Tom Courtenay) are approaching their 45th wedding anniversary, with a party planned at the weekend to celebrate the occasion with friends. Their week gets off to an unexpected start when a letter arrives for Geoff, the body of his past love has finally been found, perfectly preserved in a glacier, bringing up old memories, hidden secrets, and tensions between the couple.

The film doesn’t offer much of a preamble, the inciting letter is there in the first few minutes and they talk about it straight away. There’s no toying with it being a mystery, it’s openly talked about, allowing the drama to come from the complexities that arise slowly over the course of the film. Right from the opening titles there’s a clue to how things will unfold, each credit appears accompanied by the sound of a slide on a projector carousel, so I could see that pictures and specifically slides were going to be important. The conversations between the couple often mention the lack of photos taken by them, and as we tend to equate photographs with memories the link is clear that the unexpected events will trigger reflection on their 45 years together.

I loved how it’s a film of calm and quiet conversations, and while the central inciting incident and the revelations from it are substantial, things never turn over-dramatic even though the subject would allow for it. If this was an American melodrama, the problems faced by this couple would cause huge blazing rows, but instead there are calm arguments, no big shouting matches but very definitely arguments nonetheless. You might say it’s very British, displaying the traditional reserve and ‘stiff upper lip’, though I like to think of it as just being very dignified. Slides do indeed provide a shocking reveal, an uncovered secret that’s never put into dialogue, just the slide says it all, we see it and reach exactly the same realisation as the character who almost argues about it but stops just short of doing so.

Lots of small details are incorporated into the film and the performances, brief looks, tiny comments, background sounds. Lots of small sounds are often amplified to be more prominent, such as wind chimes and outside sounds of the wind or background voices, which highlight the character on screen taking a moment to think, or possibly try to clear their mind of a thought. I was impressed by the way the film only uses diegetic music, that which comes from a source in the film, such as radios and at one point a piano. This occasional music is very carefully chosen, with lyrics being poignant at times so that the snippets we hear do touch on the themes of the film.

The whole film is a well-observed examination of  how something can play on your mind and the inability to shake it, a feeling we all experience at times. With such a small cast and the focus being on just the central couple it’s vital they they give solid performances and they do, though I can’t put my finger on why I felt that Rampling’s performance was slightly better, especially as Tom Courtenay is wonderful too as he perfectly conveys the sense that Geoff is flustered throughout as the events are understandably always on his mind. It’s Rampling’s performance that has managed to make enough of an impression to get included in the Oscar nominations for ‘Best Actress’. However, her recent comments over the controversy about the lack of diversity in the nominees, saying that it was “racist to whites”, while possibly misquoted, have as good as ensured that her already slim chances of winning have been cut to nought.

I almost wanted them to have a bigger argument, even if just for my benefit of it clarifying a few things, but no, so much is left unsaid. Both leads show perfectly how their characters are bothered by the situation, for different reasons, but they convey that the characters have a great deal of love and respect for each other that avoids things getting unpleasant between them. At the end of our week with these fully realised characters it feels like tensions are still simmering beneath the surface of their well-composed exteriors, a fascinating place to leave them.

’45 Years’ is nominated at the BAFTAs for ‘Outstanding British Film’ which it may have a chance of winning though competition is strong. Charlotte Rampling has been nominated at the Academy Awards for the ‘Best Actress’ Oscar, though she won’t win, I’ll buy myself a hat and eat it if she does. 

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5 thoughts on “45 Years (Oscar Nominee 2016)

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