Movies

A less perfect union

Charlotte Rampling questions her marriage in '45 Years'

We all know what happens when a pebble kicks up on the highway and leaves a tiny crack on a windshield. The crack grows, slowly, inexorably, the life of the windshield numbered. So goes the tragic form: one bad choice, one unsettling piece of information, and the hero will never see the end of it. In Andrew Haigh's "45 Years," the crack forms in a marriage, and we watch it agonizingly spread.

Writer-director Haigh has a knack for burrowing under the skin of those who lead lives of ostensible creature comforts but creeping emotional discomfort. Best known for "gay-themed" projects (the lovely film "Weekend" and the nearly departed HBO series "Looking"), Haigh here adapts David Constantine's short story "In Another Country" to examine how a man and woman, poised to celebrate the titular anniversary, are forced by one bit of news to reexamine their entire history together, including the viability of their marriage.

Childless retirees Kate and Geoff Mercer (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) enjoy an upper-middle-class existence in the British countryside. News arrives, however improbably, of a body discovered in a Swiss glacier. The body, preserved since 1962, belongs to a girl named Katya, the girlfriend Geoff lost on a backpacking expedition when he was 25. When this news joins the couple at their breakfast table, the couple make an immediate tacit agreement that the gruesome revelation is unsettling, yes, but trivial.

And so the dishonesty begins or, to put it another way, continues, for both Geoff and Kate have their doubts, rediscovered along with Katya's body. Behavioral shifts signal the unspoken, the couple's domestic tranquility disturbed. A badly timed sexual mood marks the first bout of protesting too much, one that fizzles sadly. Geoff lets stubble grow out, and both he and Kate frequently find themselves lost in thought. From the dead, Katya shakes the couple's sense of purpose, as individuals and in their consecrated union.

If Geoff is tortured by what might have been, Kate suffers the possibility that she has always been, and always will be, second best to the idealized girl frozen in that glacier. Haigh's typically sensitive direction abets performances of heartbreaking personal and relational frailty from the Oscar-nominated Rampling and the unjustly neglected Courtenay. The final twist of the knife comes with the anniversary party, held at the same site as the battle-capping Trafalgar Ball in 1805. But this won't end like the Shakespeare comedy that relievedly concludes, "And time it is when raging war is done/To smile at 'scapes and perils overblown."

"45 Years" locates its drama largely in micro-expressions and gestural nuances, the resistance to melodrama clarifying the film's haunting staying power. Not unlike the characters, you may well find yourself living with the story's revelations long after you wish you had forgotten their implications, about the long odds for romance, the deeper psychology of mating, and the devastating possibility that love isn't an absolute but a willful, occasionally mutual, delusion.

Rated R for language and brief sexuality. One hour, 35 minutes.

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