Criterion Blu-Ray Review: Andrew Haigh’s ’45 Years’

We’ve already said…

Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years (2015) has so much to it, despite its thinly framed story. The movie’s plot can be packed into a single sentence. After receiving a letter a few days before their 45th wedding anniversary party, an elderly couple’s lives are shattered by its revelation. But within that sentence, there is so much to unpack.

45 years

Geoff (Tom Courtenay) and Kate (Charlotte Rampling) Mercer have lived a happy life in Norfolk, England as husband and wife for 45 years. At the end of the week, they will celebrate their anniversary with a party. But at the beginning of the week, they receive a letter with some surprising news. The woman he loved long before he ever met Kate was found, buried in a once-frozen ravine in Switzerland. At first, the news doesn’t seem that earth-shattering, but as the film unfolds, Kate learns just how important this woman was to her husband.

The story is based on In Another Country, a 12-page short story by David Constantine. Haigh changed the story significantly to not only make it a 90-minute movie, but also shifted perspective from the man in the relationship to the woman.

Haigh, clearly inspired by the “kitchen-sink” dramas of the British New Wave, reveals in his third film that he’s a genius in understated storytelling. This is a film about what’s said between the lines. For every dramatic statement Kate and Geoff deliver, there’s an equally important silence that says just as much.

It clearly wouldn’t work without these Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as the stars. These actors have resumes filled with incredible performances. You almost forget that you’re watching two titans of world cinema.

However, as stated in the behind-the-scenes documentary on the Criterion Collection disc, Haigh doesn’t want his audience to completely forget that you’re seeing Courtenay and Rampling. He wants you to remember how these two stars looked when they were young. We don’t need the film weighed down with silly flashbacks because we know what these characters looked like when they were young. Instead, he can keep his camera in the present, focusing on these actors as they are now, telling stories of the past.

So much of our enjoyment of 45 Years can come from imagining the world of the film that’s going on off screen. We never leave Kate’s perspective, meaning we never actually know what Geoff is really doing when he’s away. We can only imagine how much the news tortures him as it does Kate, or how much he is pained by how the news hurts Kate. The film’s open-ended ending leaves us imagining how the couple moves on from the news. 45 Years only offers a snapshot of two lives. It’s a movie that begs for far more audience participation than any movie that over-explains things.


The Blu-ray

Nearly a year after Paramount’s bare-bones release of 45 Years on Blu-ray, Criterion presents their own edition. The small collection of extras might look disappointing at first, but each feature is worth watching.

  • Commentary – Haigh and producer Tristan Goligher recorded a commentary for the Artificial Eye edition of the film in the U.K. Rather than record their own commentary, Criterion carried this over.
  • The Making of 45 Years – Running just 35 minutes (which is pretty short for a Criterion-produced documentary like this), this feature goes over the origins of the film and its production. Haigh discusses why he decided to adapt Constantine’s story, the casting and how it connects to his film Weekend. Others contributing include Rampling, Courtenay, cinematographer Lol Crawley, editor Jonathan Albers and Goligher. It’s mostly talking heads, with a couple of scenes from the film and on-set photographs mixed in, but it’s surprisingly thorough.
  • David Constantine – For 15 minutes, Constantine talks about writing the short story and why he liked Haigh’s film. He also speaks about his writing process and gives his thoughts on the role of prose fiction versus film.
  • Trailer
  • “Fissures” – Ella Taylor, a critic and professor at USC, provides the essay in the included leaflet.

The art design by Anthony Gerace has been a much-discussed topic and it does seem to work only if you’ve seen the film before. I have a very hard time believing that anyone who sees this on a shelf at Barnes & Noble will pick it up as a “blind buy” because the cover is too artsy for its own good. If you’ve seen the film, it’s a beautiful image that not only depicts the news in the letter, but also the growing chasm it creates between the two characters. On the other hand, it will do nothing but confuse people who’ve never seen the film before.

Cover design aside, 45 Years is a wonderful, moving masterpiece that deserves that title. Quiet films like these prove that people who complain that “they don’t make movies like they used to” don’t actually see movies that are made like they “used to.” 45 Years will keep you thinking about it for weeks, long after you’ve forgotten about that exploding blockbuster you just saw.

Thanks to Criterion for providing this disc to review.

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