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45 Years: A Rumination on Aging

Writer/director Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years is a profoundly moving movie about a longtime married couple poignantly portrayed by two cinema greats, the British thespians Tom Courtenay and my cousin, Charlotte Rampling (okay, that’s a complete lie; we’re totally unrelated – so shoot me!). As they prepare to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary a completely unexpected blast from the past upends their tidy marital world. Within the film’s first few minutes Geoff Mercer (Courtenay) is notified that the remains of his onetime lover, Katya – who died in a Swiss mountaineering tragedy – have been found and that she is perfectly preserved.

This proceeds to totally unsettle Geoff and his marriage to Kate Mercer (Rampling) threatens to unravel. Long buried (literally and figuratively) feelings bubble up to the surface and it turns out that the old married couple may not have been as honest with one another as they had pretended to be for almost half a century. The present is haunted by the past, and Geoff muses that while he now looks like a man in his seventies, his long lost love, frozen in ice, still looks like she did when she vanished in the Alps in 1962.

It turns out that this is a significant year, as 1962 is when Courtenay made his feature film debut in Tony Richardson’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, written by Allan Sillitoe – a pivotal film that epitomized the “kitchen sink” drama of postwar British cinema featuring “angry young men.” Courtenay went on to play another one of these proletarian rebels rubbing up against the English class system in John Schlesinger’s 1963 Billy Liar and a Russian revolutionary in 1965’s Doctor Zhivago, for which he was Oscar-nominated.

Like another of AFI Fest’s other best films, Youth, 45 Years is a rumination on aging, a meditation on the meaning of life. Interestingly, as Geoff remembers his younger days he develops a resurgent interest in sex – and the leftwing politics of his youth. After a reunion of his factory mates Geoff is disgusted that the son of a former militant, “Red Len” (a Lenin reference?), has become – of all things! – a banker! Shudders! How shameful, comrades!

Rampling – who played a Holocaust survivor who resumes a postwar affair with Dirk Bogarde’s ex-Nazi who’d tortured her in 1974’s sadomasochistic The Night Porter – is likewise superb as a wife confronting a life lived if not with lies, then with grievous omissions. It turns out that both suffered deep losses of loved ones the year Geoff and Kate met, which could help explain why they wed when they did.

It’s great that in this day and age of youth-oriented movies that these two veteran actors can play lead roles on the big screen. And instead of the special effects-laden, explosion laced big budge Tinseltown extravaganzas, it’s rewarding that here’s a movie where the characters’ biggest challenge is whether or not they’ll be able to make it to their 45th wedding anniversary party – and if their marriage will survive. Will it? That’s a matter of subjective interpretation I’ll leave to your own imaginations, Dear Readers.

While younger viewers may find 45 Years to be dull and uneventful, more mature theatergoers are likely to find it to be a riveting, truthful even transcendental experience ripped, if not from the proverbial headlines, from real life and transposed to reel life. Both Courtenay and Rampling made personal appearances during AFI Fest, attending a well-deserved tribute at TCL Chinese Theatre. They both won 2015 Berlin International Film Festival Silver Bear prizes for their 45 Years performances – and let’s hope that Oscar remembers these iconic cinematic stalwarts, still spinning their spells on us from the silver screen.

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Ed Rampell is a contributor to the new book on America’s former Poet Laureate “Conversations With W.S. Merwin” and co-author of “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book“.

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