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‘45 Years’ review: Must-see drama that burns slowly

Tom Courtenay, left, as Geoff and Charlotte Rampling

Tom Courtenay, left, as Geoff and Charlotte Rampling as Kate in Andrew Haigh's film "45 Years." Credit: Agatha A. Nitecka

PLOT An elderly husband and wife are shaken by news that the body of his old girlfriend has been found.

CAST Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay

RATED R (language, sexuality and adult themes)


BOTTOM LINE A tingling, slow-burning drama performed by two legendary actors at the top of their game. A must-see.

Andrew Haigh’s extraordinary drama “45 Years” begins with a revelation: A few days before their 45th anniversary celebration, Kate and Geoff Mercer receive news that the body of his old girlfriend has finally been found. That bombshell drops into their quiet, seemingly happy lives in the English countryside but doesn’t fully detonate until the end of this hushed, tingly, slow-burning film.

“45 Years” stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, two members of British acting royalty who, at 69 and 78, respectively, appear to be at the top of their game. They’ve been cannily cast as mellowed-out survivors of the youthquake era: Rampling once embodied the glamour of Swinging London in “Georgy Girl” (1966) and became famous for a haughty expression known as “The Look,” while Courtenay, lesser known to Americans, was one of England’s iconic Angry Young Men in “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” (1962). For fans of classic British cinema, watching these two together on screen — remarkably, for the first time — will be a thrill tinged by the poignancy of their aged faces.

The last stage of life — what’s gone before and what’s left — is this movie’s overarching theme. Geoff’s former flame, Katya, fell to her death while they were hiking a glacier in Switzerland, but now that the retreating ice has released her body — bringing her, in a way, back to life — Kate begins to wonder whether she’s been competing with Katya all along. Geoff’s affable personality, now darkened by secrets, no longer seems so charming.

Based on David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country,” “45 Years” doesn’t have much of what normally passes for action, or even dialogue. Haigh’s quiet, enigmatic style can sometimes register as slowness, but even the most static-seeming scenes — Kate lighting her first cigarette in what must be decades, for example — contain crucial insights. The actors communicate volumes in few words; what goes unspoken often sounds the loudest. There’s an unexpected amount of power in this delicate, beautifully acted film.

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