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February 21, 2016

Subtle Sorrow: 45 Years at Cinemapolis

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Fractured romantic relationships are often portrayed in film as synonymous with heightened passions and youth: an intoxicating mix of personalities that leads to big blowouts and misunderstandings. 45 Years, the fantastic film written and directed by Andrew Haigh that is now playing at Cinemapolis, gives us a far different troubled relationship: one in which a longtime married couple has always been contented, but a gnawing and sickening feeling develops that all that contentment has been utter bullshit. There is no yelling, just long faces and the feeling that that the other person does not truly understand you.

Kate and Geoff Mercer, the married English couple respectively played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, live a fairly pleasant existence. They are both retired, she a former schoolteacher and he a former manager at some type of factory. They sometimes drive into town to shop; she takes the dog out for walks in their lovely countryside home. They are the types of people who will peaceably fade and die into the ether of time, having done nothing remarkable in their lives but not having endured any real tragedy either.

However, that all changes when Geoff receives a letter that states that the authorities have discovered the frozen body of a woman named Katya he was dating as a young man, but who then fell down a crevice when the two were hiking in Switzerland. Kate knows about Katya, and is immediately understanding of Geoff’s grief. However, as the film progresses, it is clear that the tragedy is hitting Geoff a little too hard for Kate’s sake. He takes up smoking again, which he has not done in years. He becomes withdrawn. He furtively goes to the attic in the middle of the night to look at pictures of Katya. He says that he may want to go to Switzerland to see the body, which is additionally unsettling to Kate as Katya’s body is frozen, which is a clever way of Haigh communicating that Katya’s beauty and youth is literally frozen in time. Soon, Kate starts to develop the feeling that their 45 years of marriage have been a merely adequate Plan B for Geoff.

A clever conceit of the film, which was not in the short story by David Constantine that it was based upon, is that all of this is occurring the week before the couple’s 45th anniversary, which they plan to have a large celebration for that Saturday with their friends. It gives the film the feeling of being a ticking time bomb, especially because, as the film progresses, title cards pop up saying what day it is and, consequently, how many days are left before Kate and Geoff must repair their rift or present a completely false face to those around them.

Rampling has gotten a lot of flack lately for the antiquated comments she made about the issues surrounding the diversity of the Oscars. This is a bit of a shame, because it has distracted from her haunting and astounding performance in 45 Years. Rampling communicates multitudes with her eyes. She doesn’t need to move at all. In a scene in which Kate goes up to the attic and, in the process of looking at photos, finds out a secret about Katya that complicates the picture even further, we do not need to see the photo of the secret. It’s all in the eyes. The ending of the film, which I will not spoil beyond saying that I think it’s one of the most impactful endings I’ve ever seen, involves a crowd of people around Kate and Geoff. But all we are drawn to is Rampling’s face, and every emotion that is emanating out of it. It’s devastating.

Jesse Weissman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at jweissman@cornellsun.com. 

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