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'45 Years': A Modern Classic Of British Cinema

21/08/2015 12:08 BST | Updated 21/08/2016 10:59 BST

Andrew Haigh is one of Britain's most emotionally intelligent auteurs. His breakthrough second feature Weekend was an exceptionally nuanced tale of risk, romance and urban dislocation with tones as elegant as John Cheever and Brief Encounter. Looking, his HBO comedy-drama about three gay friends in San Francisco, pulsed with subtlety, verve, genuinely lovable characters and John Grant-signatured wisdom: even the most innocuous interactions had the dust of considered mischief (the 'Lost in Music' forest rave is also just one of the best party sequences of all time).

His third feature 45 Years, based on a David Constantine short story, traces a week in the life of married couple Geoff (Sir Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling). A black-tie sapphire anniversary is planned for Saturday, but on Monday Geoff receives a letter from Switzerland: the body of his ex-girlfriend Katya has been found in the mountains, unaged since 1962. What follows is an enigmatic, impeccably paced exploration of marriage, regret and the dangers of memory.

It's quite an achievement to distil forty-five years of marriage to a week, and indeed a ninety-minute film, but writer-director Haigh establishes the rhythm of their relationship so quickly that breaks in the routine (such as Kate not taking the dog for a walk on Thursday morning) are strangely unsettling. Haigh buries exposition in dextrous layers. During an early scene where Kate recces the party venue, little clues flicker and recede: they had to cancel their fortieth anniversary because Geoff wasn't well; they don't want a "top table". Like the finest writers, he laces the serious with the comic. The last noise but one Katya made before she died was a laugh at the flirty mountain-guide's joke. Later, moments after Kate discovers the slideshow in the attic, a tipsy Geoff lays into the "fucking endless" union lunch and ex-colleagues who now strum ukuleles and golf in the Algarve.

45 Years deepens its writing with visual symbolism. The Swiss peaks of the past haunt the flat endlessness of the Norfolk broads; a speedboat races past Kate's slow cruise for the elderly. Most poignantly, the lack of photos around the house counterpoints Geoff's secret slideshow in the attic. Kate's discovery of the stash is a mesmerising split-screen: on the right Katya, preserved at twenty-seven in the snow of Geoff's mind; on the left Kate, aged and lit only by memories of Katya. (The siren-call of memory-recordings also rhymes with Glen's Dictaphone in Weekend).

Rampling and Courtenay are both extraordinary, but the film's emotional focus is Kate and Haigh composes his shots accordingly. Often when Geoff answers key questions (like would he have married Katya if she were still alive, or what he's doing in the attic in the middle of the night), he's not in shot and the camera stays on Kate's reaction. If he is in shot, he tends to be in the back of the frame or out of focus, or he avoids eye contact. It's as if Kate still hasn't formed a full picture of Geoff, a psychological complement to the lack of photos.

At first Kate is cautiously sympathetic, but she grows jealous with nowhere to put it. "I don't think I can talk about her anymore", she says on Wednesday evening, understandably, but their embedded lack of communication underpins the confusion. Both suffered great sadness in 1962, she realises, but they never discussed it. Nor does Kate fully confront Geoff about the slideshow discoveries: she just insists he be by her side on Saturday.

Courtenay has a cosily unknowable presence. The low-powered contentment of late life, which his spry Hull lilt dapples like warm rain, is besieged by a numb smoke. The letter unseams the harmonies of the present and reduces Geoff to a brambled mesh of regrets, dazed on a bench and forced to reassure the local racist he's alright. Glimmers of humour - snarls, chest-beats, a subdued sex scene - seep with inexpression, like the mournful look of distraction when friends show him photos of their grandchildren or his sudden reluctance to go to a reunion lunch. His shifty behaviour - night sessions in the attic, solo trips to town to investigate climate change or flights to Switzerland - mimics a sort of affair with the past.

On the morning of their anniversary, chastened the night before, Geoff wakes Kate with a cup of tea and offers to walk the dog. At the party, his speech is a cadenza of contrition and muted ambiguities, more cathartic for him than for her. He stresses how important it is to make good choices early in life, and that persuading Kate to marry him was the best thing he ever did. He fails to mention that not marrying Katya was thrust upon him rather than a choice, and he only defines Kate by her relationship to him (the quality he praises most is her ability to put up with him). Even by the film's heady standards, the speech is masterfully written: humble, romantic and apologetic on the surface, yet densely evasive and self-centred. Geoff cries, as much from the thought of losing Kate as from love, but compare his abandon on the dance floor to Kate, only now infected with the haunted look Geoff has just shaken off. The slow-dance to the music of the present is distorted by the echoes of the past, and the wordless final shot of Rampling is perfect.

What a brilliant, bracing film this is, a character poem with the depth and lyricism of a John McGahern story, a contemporary classic untrammelled by easy answers. Was Geoff's marriage to Kate a smothering of an old fire rather than a fire in itself? In 45 Years, to paraphrase Ted Hughes, the dull wintering heart sips and bewilders its reflection, and snow muffles the dusty stabs of the late sun. Some thoughts lie too deep for tears, but writer-director Andrew Haigh, at forty-two, excavates them with prescient, understated ease. British cinema is lucky to have him.