Following his youthful gay-themed films “Greek Pete” and “Weekend,” and HBO’s “Looking,” British writer-director Andrew Haigh ventures onto fresh ground with his maturely assured third feature, “45 Years.” Depicting a retired rural Norfolk couple questioning their relationship in the run-up to their titular wedding anniversary, this admirable Berlin competition entry will inevitably draw comparisons, at least for its somewhat privileged milieu, with the English middle-class dramas of Joanna Hogg (“Archipelago”). And by arriving so soon after Guy Myhill’s Venice entry “The Goob” and Martin Radich’s Rotterdam premiere “Norfolk,” it also completes a surely coincidental trilogy of current British indie features set in England’s flattest county.
While British stories featuring characters of retirement age, such as “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “Quartet,” are resonating with large audiences at home and abroad, “45 Years” shirks many of the pandering pleasures that have helped define the genre. And lacking any of the cast members that have proved consistent winners with this market — rich assets Maggie Smith, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren — Haigh’s compassionate but hardly sentimental film is more likely to reside within an arthouse niche. Strong critical approbation will be needed to break it out very far.
Modestly paced, carefully composed and emotionally curbed though it may be, “45 Years” is permitted a major element of dramatic underpinning. Genial Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay) receives a letter that sets his mind racing: The body of his ex-fiancee, Katya, who disappeared into a crevasse while the pair were on a Swiss walking holiday in 1962, has been revealed inside a melting glacier. Since Geoff had been marked as next of kin on her death certificate, will he come to Switzerland to identify the corpse?
Departing from the source material — David Constantine’s “In Another Country,” published in the short-story collection “Under the Dam” — the film’s point of view sticks principally with Geoff’s wife, Kate (Charlotte Rampling), who experiences the dramatic developments with a blend of intrigue, jealousy and escalating concern. She had known about Katya, but not about the engagement, and now she must reassess her long marriage in the shadow of her husband’s past love. One major revelation, arriving after Kate goes foraging among Geoff’s old photographs, adds an extra dramatic kick.
Haigh’s casting choices for the two lead roles pay rich dividends: Courtenay is so apt as the soft-spoken and rather private Geoff that even modest changes in his aspect, including his discombobulated return to cigarette smoking, register vividly. A wiry Rampling, youthful in her trim physique and sleek wardrobe choices, brings Kate’s whirling emotions to the screen with similar economy.
The defining decision of the Mercers’ relationship — the fact that they opted not to have children, and thus now have no family at all in their lives — is barely alluded to by the couple, as is reasonable in a weeklong snapshot of a 45-year marriage. This childless state serves the drama, raising the stakes of the couple’s interdependence and mutual absorption, while offering no natural outlet for Kate’s pressure-cooker feelings.
Above all, “45 Years” is a drama of quiet restraint. The camera observes while Kate takes her dog Max for walks in the misty autumnal countryside, goes for excursions “into town” (Norwich), or joins friends on a riverboat trip in the Norfolk Broads — the scars left after the occupying Romans dug for peat are a neat echo of both the deadly Swiss crevasse and the fissure opening in the Mercers’ marriage. At home, the couple enjoy an intimate moment as they dance to an old favorite (“Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price) and then attempt to rekindle their sex life. It’s a touching and very believable depiction.
Craft-wise, Haigh corrals an impressive roster of tech contributions, notably rich 35mm lensing by d.p. Lol Crawley (“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”). Absent a composed score, the sound mix by prolific supervising sound editor Joakim Sundstrom is nicely showcased, especially as the wind rattles around the Mercers’ detached rural home.