45 Years
★★★ ½
Opening Friday

Writer-director Andrew Haigh’s most fiendish ploy in 45 Years is that he provides precious few hints of the good times shared by Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling), a retired schoolteacher, and Geoff (Tom Courtenay), a retired factory manager. No pictures of the couple adorn the walls of their provincial English home, nor has their four-decade-long marriage produced any children. There’s little enmity—just the agreeable everyday of an “old married couple” on the occasion of their forty-fifth wedding anniversary.

But their languid tranquility is rattled when Geoff receives a dispatch from Swiss authorities informing him that the frozen remains of his German ex, Katya, have been found in snowmelt, fifty years after she slipped into a glacier crevasse. The news hits Geoff like a thunderbolt. It also rattles the otherwise reserved Kate, who was obviously unaware of her husband’s former lover.

The revelation triggers an asymptomatic malaise, and the depths of Geoff and Katya’s relationship are gradually peeled away like the layers of an onion. There are few grand gestures or shrill exhortations. Instead, Kate’s quiet, measured responses slowly morph from inquisitive to bemused to, ultimately, emotionally shattered. It’s a complex performance, and it earned Rampling a richly deserved Oscar nomination.

Geoff is bumbling and wistful, but Haigh carefully avoids casting him as callous or uncaring. Indeed, as we glean more about Geoff’s past with Katya, his odd reactions—his sudden interest in climate change, his furtive efforts to travel to Switzerland to view Katya’s body—become understandable. His nocturnal visits to the attic pique Kate’s curiosity, and what she discovers inside an old slide projector calls into the question the meaning of the marriage that has defined her life. Was it a compromise? A consolation prize? A deception? An illusion—or even an allusion? When Kate plays piano after retrieving old sheet music from storage in the garage, it shows how both she and Geoff have packed away elements of themselves for the sake of their marriage.

In 45 Years, the shared lifetime of two people unravels, leaving in its wake a lifetime of regret. The title denotes a chronological marker rather than a celebratory milestone. The climactic anniversary shindig, punctuated by a last dance to the strains of The Platters, is one of the most devastating film endings I’ve ever seen. Rampling’s expressions of heartrending realization are in unison with the song’s lyrics about the dissolution of a love affair: “Now laughing friends deride/ Tears I cannot hide/ So I smile and say/ When a lovely flame dies/ Smoke gets in your eyes.”