In the movie industry, having the love life of an older couple as the focus of a film is a welcoming change — a breath of fresh air from the slew of fun but short-lived flings between young adults that flood the market. Since unhappy marriages are the cinematic norm, the authentic portrayal of the successful relationship between the two in “45 Years” made the film even more endearing.
The film is about Kate (Charlotte Rampling, “The Forbidden Room”) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay, “Dad’s Army”), an elderly couple planning a party for their 45th wedding anniversary. The festivities are to compensate for their 40th anniversary celebration that was cancelled due to Geoff’s unanticipated bypass surgery. The speed with which the backstory is introduced through dialogue without compromising the linear narrative is remarkable. Six days before the party, Geoff receives a letter informing him that the body of his ex-lover Katya, from the 1960’s, was finally discovered in a glacier in Switzerland, where he last saw her before she was trapped in a crevasse. This memory from his past causes him to lament the loss of his carefree youth. The way Kate supports him through this identity crisis, from encouraging him to pick up the German he lost from his time abroad to comforting him when he has difficulties in bed, is touching. Her sweet nature makes the intimacy and understanding of the relationship a beautiful promise to root for. The couple divides the household chores around each of their strengths and sleeping schedules, demonstrating their compassion for each other as individuals. It’s no surprise they are still together after so many years, as the two have learned how to skillfully meet each other’s needs.
However, Kate becomes increasingly upset as Geoff becomes preoccupied with Katya. He goes so far as to show interest in going back to Switzerland and seeing her one last time before she is buried. The blatant disregard Geoff has towards the big celebration of their anniversary illustrates the drama of the film — Kate restrains Geoff’s individuality, wanting the two of them to equally contribute to their achievements as a couple. The opposing yet reasonable desires of both characters solidifies the conflict.
There is not much plot to “45 Years,” but the film paints the entire world of elderly couples with excellent care. The performances by Rampling and Courtenay are outstanding, bringing to life the nuances of their respective conflicted characters. The use of intertitles to divide the plot into six distinct days keeps the plot continually developing without ever letting the pacing or structure of the film feel predictable. It manages to highlight the film’s realism without ever breaking its focus on the fate of the Mercers’ relationship, which is no easy feat considering the vivid characters that populate the protagonists’ lives.
In an age where over 30 percent of marriages end in divorce, it is heartening to see such a tender portrayal of enduring attachment. Not the happy endings of fairy tales, but the actual commitment of two people who care for each other and want to fight the world by each other’s side in spite of their differences. Even though it is but one purifying drop in the sea of sleazy romance films, “45 Years” is testament to the fact that we are still capable of entertaining the elusive concept of true love, evident by the way the audience was brought to tears by the Mercers’ realistic problems and triumphs.