Berlinale: Film review - 45 Years

British director Andrew Haigh's poignant drama, 45 Years, based on a short story by David Constantine, is led by two terrific central performances from Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling. Kate and Geoff are preparing for their 45th wedding anniversary. They have no children and live in a small rural village near the Norfolk Broads. They seem content with their lot and are happy together. They still talk about serious matters, laugh and attempt to have sex. Then Geoff receives a letter informing him that the body of his first girlfriend, Katya, missing for fifty years after a hiking accident, has been found frozen in the Swiss Alps.

Understandably, Geoff is thrown by the news and starts reminiscing about the past and his first love. He finds old photographs of Katya and contemplates returning to Switzerland to identify her body.  Kate tries to remain calm, is initially sympathetic, continues to walk their dog Max and prepare for their anniversary party. Despite having had a heart bypass five years earlier, Geoff starts to smoke again and becomes increasingly obsessed and irascible. Kate finds her patience tested to the limits. After digging into Geoff's past herself, she finally delivers an ultimatum. Geoff, it transpires, has not told her everything about his relationship with Katya.

Although 45 Years focuses on a robust relationship tested in old age, Haigh describes it as the natural companion piece to his acclaimed debut feature Weekend (2011) about first love. The emotional power of 45 Years depends to a large extent on the credibility of the performances and Courtenay and Rampling do not disappoint. In numerous closeups, Rampling conveys the conflicting emotions of a woman by turns hurt, uncomprehending and angry. Courtenay is just as superb playing a man who is used to feeling but is unable to express his emotions. Instead he relies on various arm gestures and other physical tics to articulate his thoughts.

45 Years may not have the epic sweep of some of the films premiering at the Berlinale but it's no less moving. Haigh's latest is an impressive study of a couple haunted by their past. It can take years to form a bond and just minutes for it all to unravel. 45 Years is a potent reminder of the fragility of love and the need to keep communication open at all times.

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