“45 Years” is such a sly movie, its dramatic heart beating in soft, regular intervals with its undercurrents of anguish, jealousy and doubt seldom rising above a whisper, that it might slip by largely unnoticed.
It might were it not for the extraordinary casting coup of getting two icons of British youth culture in the 1960s, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, to play its lead characters. That commands attention and, given the theme that quickly emerges in the movie, the casting is positively brilliant.
These two, by the way, won best actress and actor awards at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival for their work in “45 Years.” Rampling also won the LA Film Critics Association’s best actress award this month.
The film’s writer-director, Andrew Haigh (“Weekend,” 2011), has taken a short story by David Constantine and expanded on this to create a contemplative yet disturbing look at an aging couple about to celebrate a union of 45 years.
It even ends, as adult films are wont to do, on an open-ended note: You must think about where this marriage of four-and-a-half decades might be headed.
All’s well as the story gets under way. You see a childless English couple in the Norfolk countryside, long settled into individual routines. Kate walks their rather large dog daily while Geoff is more sedentary, perhaps due to that heart bypass five years ago, puttering around a comfortable though smallish country home.
Then a letter arrives. He has trouble with the verbs — you later guess it’s in German — but he gets the gist of it. The letter is from Switzerland and it informs Geoff that the body of his long-ago girlfriend Katya has been discovered in a glacier.
Years before, while the couple was on a hiking-and-walking trip through Europe, Katya fell into a fissure in that glacier. The authorities believe Geoff to be the next-of-kin since the couple had pretended to be married even though they were not. Geoff is sure he told Kate about this subterfuge long ago but, no, apparently he did not.
This development throws Kate into a tail spin. She knew about Katya, of course, but her “re-emergence” after so many years gives Kate the worst sort of rival — a dead one.
Not helping matters is Geoff’s obtuseness. The news has unsettled him, which he shows in the renewal of a smoking habit and retreat into nostalgia. He rummages in the attic for old photographs and grouses about friends and how badly they’ve aged.
Even the car radio conspires against Kate. Driving into town and apparently listening to an oldies station, she is assailed by songs from their youth — “Happy Together,” “Young Girl” and “I Only Want To Be With You.”
The story is told from Kate’s point of view: You see what her husband does not. You feel what she feels while he is preoccupied with rants and smoking and old photos. You experience her desperation as she makes yet another life-altering discovery.
“45 Years” is no melodrama. It’s a movie with a serene surface yet an underbelly of roiling emotions. It moves slowly, to the rhythms of retired life in a bucolic countryside near a small town, but asks tough questions.
Should events of a half-century before have this kind of impact? Can a marriage built on shaky ground still last? How close can you get to another human being? How well can you ever know anyone?
Rampling’s Kate is a former school teacher and you can see her pondering these questions just as a teacher probes her pupils for answers. Hers has been a stable if unremarkable life but now she questions everything. She even grabs a smoke herself, joining her husband in the bad habit.
Rampling plays subtext about as well as any actor in the world, her eyes and body conveying a mind overheating with unhealthy activity after having grown accustomed to much less challenging thoughts in later years.
Courtenay’s Geoff has grown more insular — you imagine since you have no earlier self to compare him to — and less in touch with his wife’s feelings. The letter with its startling news has thrown his mind back in time and he even contemplates a possible trip to Switzerland to gaze on his old lover frozen in time.
The story is built around preparations for a celebration of their 45th wedding anniversary. But he sees nothing wrong in his behavior in the days leading up to that event.
He has allowed himself to dwell in the past for a few days, but it does nothing, in his mind, to disturb the contentment he feels in his own marriage and in growing old with the same woman.
Haigh balances these two wonderful performances — indeed all other characters are totally peripheral — so they play off each other terrifically, one acutely aware of every nuance of behavior, expression and frustration and the other blithely ignorant that anything crucial is going on.
“45 Years” is a film that lingers in the mind if you let it. The film is reminiscent of the short fiction of some of the greats from Joyce to Tolstoy in the way it takes ordinary events and finds extraordinary meaning within them.
Opens: December 23, 2015 (Sundance Selects)
Production company: The Bureau
Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, Dolly Wells, David Sibley
Director/screenwriter: Andrew Haigh
Based on a short story by: David Constantine
Producer: Tristan Goligher
Executive producers: Christopher Collins, Lizzie Francke, Sam Lavender, Tessa Ross, Richard Holmes, Louisa Dent, Philip Knatchbull
Director of photography: Lol Crawley
Production designer: Sarah Finlay
Costume designer: Suzie Harman
Editor: Jonathan Alberts
R rating, 95 minutes