This review was originally published in September 2015 as part of our coverage for the Toronto International Film Festival 2015.
In no particular order, here is a list of things that viewing Andrew Haigh’s latest drama, 45 Years could ruin for you forever: the music of The Turtles; any remaining illusions you might have about romance, marriage, and happily ever after; “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” by The Platters; and any other performance you see this year.
It’s such a small price to pay for the painful pleasure of watching this brilliant film and its lead performance slowly unfold, though. Charlotte Rampling is nothing short of a revelation in 45 Years, delivering a tour de force so strong, so skilled and measured, and yet so emotionally fraught that it threatens to eclipse both her own career, and the rest of the film. This is saying quite a lot given that the star of Swimming Pool, The Damned, The Night Porter, Dexter, and Broadchurch was hardly a thespian slouch before now, and given that 45 Years is uniformly excellent from its writing and direction to its supporting performances, all of which keep up with her as much as is humanly possible.
Rampling plays Kate, a woman whose seemingly idyllic marriage and retired life in the scenic English country is slowly and brutally unravelled when her husband, Geoff (Tom Courtenay) receives a letter concerning his former girlfriend, Katia. The letter, which informs him that Katia, who died on a hiking trip the couple took in the Alps 50 years ago, has been found, frozen and perfectly preserved in a glacier, drives a small but festering wedge between the couple. Kate is jealous and begins to question what the past half century of her life has truly meant to herself and her husband. Geoff tries to be sympathetic to his wife’s concerns, but has quite a few of his own as he starts to consider the life he might have had if Katia hadn’t fallen. Under the weight of their parallel existential crises, Kate and Geoff must finish planning – and actually going through with – a massive party for their 45th wedding anniversary.
The execution of this story is almost uniformly perfect. Haigh’s script and direction are a clinic in careful and measured storytelling, favoring a delicate and devastating slow burn of a narrative over big dramatic moments and outbursts. Lol Crawley’s cinematography is stunning, and adds a downright haunting edge to an already emotionally gutting climax. And Courtenay gives one of the best performances of his own storied career as a man torn between a fraught present and an idealized past.
It would take a truly breathtaking, gut-wrenching performance to even begin to threaten to upstage all of this, and that’s exactly what Rampling delivers with Kate. With expert subtlety, she completely inhabits her character, loading every gesture, every sigh, and every barely perceptible tear with meaning, and poignant humanity, layering the disappointments and humble of hopes of Kate’s crumbling life upon each other until the film’s unforgettable finale.
In an average year, Rampling would be a shoe-in for Best Actress at the Oscars. For the first time in quite a while, though, the film world has offered up what borders on an embarrassment of riches both in terms of meaty roles for women and talented actresses who can play those roles for all they’re worth. Brie Larson (Room), Alicia Vikander (perhaps the only truly good thing about The Danish Girl), and perennial favorite Cate Blanchett (Carol) have all deservedly received their share of Oscar speculation so far, and there’s a lot of buzz surrounding the yet-to-be-released Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) and The Hateful Eight (Jennifer Jason Leigh).
That said, it’s still hard to imagine anyone else walking away with that statue would be anything short of a travesty. If it is, as the cliche goes, an honor just to be nominated, then standing in Rampling’s shadow should be reward enough for anyone else this year. As 45 Years proves, you can be upstaged by Charlotte Rampling and still be absolutely brilliant.