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The new film from British director Andrew Haigh, 45 Years, is a ghost story, and an expertly uneasy one at that. But this is not a tale of the supernatural; it’s the story of a sweetly humdrum couple in modern provincial England, with a wide circle of friends, four and half decades into their marriage. From a different angle it could be a sitcom.
The setting is Norfolk, flatly imposing, the couple Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff ( Tom Courtenay). Into their seventies but spry and content, they share the shorthand rituals of the long term, trips into the village, Radio 4, a nice red with dinner. They are about to celebrate their 45th anniversary (the 40th was derailed by Geoff’s dodgy ticker).
Into this soft slow idyll falls a bomb. It takes the form, classically, of a letter: high in the Swiss Alps, the body of a woman called Katya has been found. We learn of a terrible accident back at the start of the 1960s, so far back Kate and Geoff had never even met. In fact, Geoff was with Katya then, his young German girlfriend plunging into a crevasse while hiking but her body only found now, perfectly preserved in the ice.
Kate is supportive, then gets on with breakfast. And nothing is ever quite the same.
Haigh’s 2011 debut Weekend, about an affair between two young men in Nottingham, was an ode to the rush of first nights together, possible futures. Here, the past rears up calamitously. Soon, Geoff is lost to reveries about what might have been and furtive visits to travel agents; Kate is left to face not just the dread that he would always have preferred to be elsewhere, but how coldly random the fabric of a life can be.
She wakes in the night to thuds from the attic, a flash from a horror movie: it turns out to be Geoff, finding photographs of Katya. A possession has taken place, something in the walls of the marriage now. Geoff reflects on the scene in Switzerland — and what a motif it is, eerie enough to have come from Poe — and self-loathing fills his voice: “She’ll look like she did in 1962, and I’ll look like this.”
Haigh has a miniaturist’s gift for nuance, pressing a hundredweight of personal history into fleeting exchanges. Rampling and Courtenay are just as immaculate.
As the cracks open, music plays a key role; in an early scene with a sad echo awaiting it, Kate and Geoff blissfully jive in the living room, and we half-glimpse their younger selves. Later, Kate runs through the playlist for the anniversary party: The Platters, Moody Blues, The Turtles’ “Happy Together”. She sounds hollow at the thought. How cruel old songs can be, the film whispers.
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