An old marriage feels the strain in 45 Years

B- Relationship drama

Written and directed by Andrew Haigh

From a short story by David Constantine

The English seem to pride themselves on staying calm. Consider the country’s primary myth: King Arthur and His Round Table. It’s about a monarch who’s too polite to bring up the little problem of his wife shagging his best friend.

There’s no adultery in Andrew Haigh’s chamber drama about a married couple approaching their 45th anniversary. In fact, there’s nothing much to argue about. The two people at the center of 45 Years worry, talk, and feel alienated from each other. But only once does one of them seem to be on the verge of maybe getting a bit warm under the collar.

The film’s calm and even tone is both its strength and its weakness. Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay–especially Rampling–show the roiling emotions beneath the calm exterior. We can’t help but sympathize with them and consider the inevitable problems of a long marriage.

But the movie suffers from an emotional monotone. People so skilled at hiding their emotions (I’m talking about the characters, not the actors) can be dull after a while. The stars never get a chance to spread their very talented wings.

But then, the film’s major conflict is hardly something to get into a row about. Geoff (Courtenay) had a girlfriend who died years before he met Kate (Rampling). He had told his future wife long ago about this previous lover, but only now does he slip in the fact that, had she lived, they probably would have married.

With almost perfect calm, Kate reacts way out of proportion. How can she trust the man she’s lived with most of her life? After all, 50 years ago, he almost married someone else.

Geoff is significantly older than Kate (the actors’ ages are nine years apart), and he appears to be slipping into senility. Kate feels the responsibility of caring for a husband who can’t always think straight. But she’s the one whose reaction–buried as it is–is all out of proportion.

All this is happening within the few days before Kate’s and Geoff’s big, 45th anniversary party. Occasionally Kate has to put aside worries about her husband to help plan the event.

I see two ways to interpret her reaction to the news. One is that the filmmakers didn’t realize that this revelation is an absurdly trivial conflict on which to hang a feature-length film. If that’s the case, this is a very bad movie.

The other is that Kate is a deeply insecure person, locked inside an outer shell of complete confidence. The revelation of Geoff’s former love stabs at that insecurity, but doesn’t quite puncture the shell. If that’s the case, this is actually a pretty good drama.

But only pretty good. The even emotional state just emphasizes the fact that this is mostly ado about nothing.

Of course the film ends at the anniversary party, where they dance together romantically with “their” song from that long-ago wedding. The song, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” is a strange choice for celebrating a marriage. But it’s absolute perfect for ending this movie.