In 45 Years, Andrew Haigh uses sound and very precise framing to develop a complex, cinematic story of a long-term relationship. Read our book about Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete.
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The first sound in Andrew Haigh’s subtle and perfectly judged marital drama, 45 Years, is the clicking of a slide carousel. The first image in the film comes later: an extreme wide shot of the English countryside. Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) walks behind her unleashed dog from the right side of the frame to the left. As Roger Ebert once said, the past lives in the left side of the frame, and Kate is walking calmly and obliviously toward it. The sheer distance that Kate has to travel in the frame, and the time it takes, helps us feel the weight of just how many years she’s passed with her husband.
Kate spends the rest of the week, during which the film is set, wondering if she’d prefer not to have made that journey into the past. This is the week leading up to the celebration of her 45th wedding anniversary. It’s already a week for reflection, for perpetuating the stories Kate and her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) tell themselves about their marriage and its longevity. The pressure to perform the part of the perfect couple is at its height. And it’s during this week that a ghost from Geoff’s past pays a visit to the couple.
Over the course of ninety minutes, Haigh excavates 45 years of a marriage, evoking years of history, buried resentments, and power imbalances — all from Kate’s perspective. Each scene, image, and sound is carefully placed and designed to tell you something about the couple. As soon as you think you’ve got the pair pegged, Haigh teases out some detail that makes you question your understanding of their problems and their marriage all over again.
Shooting largely in long, uncut takes of two shots or wide shots, Haigh asks us to live with Kate and Geoff and the space between them. Because we can almost always see both of them, as in theatre, Haigh forces us to make a choice about who we pay attention to in any given moment. It’s a dynamic viewing experience, but unlike in theatre where actors must play to the balcony, subtle facial expressions and gestures do so much of the talking. It means you see different things with each re-watch. Every interaction morphs and changes slightly as your focus changes. Though 45 Years deals in intense, moving emotions, it’s never oppressive for us to watch, because Haigh always gives us space to breathe: a quiet scene follows great dramatic tension.
Sounds lead images in the film, often betraying a key event before we’re able to witness it. We hear the everyday sound of a letter being opened offscreen, but this particular letter bears sad news from Geoff’s past, which ends up destabilizing the couple’s equilibrium. Minutes later, we hear the sound of a clock ticking and chimes in the wind — the reminders of time pasts and ghosts present. Just how perfect was their marriage before this secret from the past was revealed? Did the letter fundamentally alter things or merely bring to the surface problems and feelings they’d been ignoring? The screenplay equivocates around these questions, always favouring nuance over any definitive answer.
Even before the letter is opened, the structure of 45 Years and Haigh’s very precise blocking gives us a complicated and almost contradictory portrait of Kate. Dressed simply and practically, her solitary morning walks suggest independence and an entrenched habit. It’s not until later that we wonder if she’s solitary by choice. The first person Kate interacts with in the film is a mailman, her former student, who treats her with a degree of reverence and respect that lets you know she’s something of an institution in these parts.
Yet Kate physically orbits around Geoff in their home, engaging him and asking him questions. On one level, this is for practical reasons: Geoff is older and has a heart condition. He speaks breathlessly and slowly. Kate is the younger and more active one, which seems to be the reason she’s circling him. But as she leans in towards him affectionately, standing at his side, she’s not quite the same confident woman whose former student could barely come to terms with using her first name. There may be a power imbalance in the relationship.
Charlotte Rampling’s Kate is always in the process of figuring out how she feels, while hiding her thought process from Geoff. She can be supportive, nasty, and insensitive all at once. She’s not one to make a scene, which means every gesture or movement speaks volumes. When she gets shocking news, she freezes for a few very tense seconds before she starts fidgeting. Her body language subtly shifts from calm, straight-backed, and confident, to hunched and small, desperately pressing a slide projector forward faster and faster in a panic. Rampling’s voice work is remarkable: light changes in tempo and volume are enough to tell us how Kate’s feelings shift from scene to scene.
Though the camera always stays with Kate, Tom Courtenay matches Rampling stride for stride. He has less screen time, but he creates a man who could believably attract and infuriate Kate. He can be insensitive and oblivious to how his behaviour is affecting Kate, but she’s also doing her best to hide it. He prattles to Kate as both a sign of affection and self-absorption. And he’s both the frailest of the pair and the one who most quickly reverts to teenage habits, smoking and swearing, as he tries to deal with the resurgence of his past. It’s clear to us that he’s processing more than just some unexpected news, and it may be even less harmful to their marriage than Kate thinks.
In 45 Years, Andrew Haigh depicts the contradictions that define a long-term relationship: that you can know someone inside out and not at all, that you lose parts of yourself to make sure you fit, that you gloss over problems to keep the peace, and that you can talk about everything while only ever talking around everything. The machinery that allows for such complexity — the sound, images, structure, editing, performances — is so well oiled that it’s invisible. 45 Years is devastating, thought-provoking, and romantic — full of as many contradictions as Kate’s and Geoff’s marriage.