It might be grounded in kitchen-sink reality in many ways — here is a small English town, here are its unglamorous citizens, here are the everyday habits of two people who have been married a long time.
But my favorite film of 2015 has an undercurrent of the fairy tale about it, as though a touch of dark magic were animating the crisis at the movie’s heart.
This is Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years” — now you know how long the couple has been married — and maybe it’s more ghost story than fairy tale. A mysterious letter arrives one day in the Mercer household. Kate (Charlotte Rampling) has just returned from a morning walk and Geoff (Tom Courtenay) is having tea.
We might be struck by the way the composition of the two of them at the kitchen table is visually imbalanced, but maybe the camera has adjusted to include the clock behind them as the third character in the shot, ticking loudly like a bomb about to go off.
The letter says that the body of Geoff’s former girlfriend — her name was Katya, which is a little close to home — has been found in an Alpine glacier, a half-century after she fell to her death while she and Geoff were hiking across Europe.
Kate had heard about Katya before, all those years ago, but apparently the subject hasn’t come up since. The letter hits Geoff hard, and of course it would. But in the week that leads up to the couple’s wedding anniversary party, Kate comes to realize that Katya’s ghost may have been haunting the marriage from the beginning.
Perhaps Kate has never realized this before, perhaps she has willfully chosen to ignore it. The fact that we’re not sure is one of the quiet triumphs of Haigh’s film. He focuses on Kate’s week, as she soldiers on with her errands while it dawns on her that Geoff may have always held on to “my Katya,” as he unthinkingly blurts out when first reading the letter. That body in the ice, such a folkloric image to contrast with this 21st-century existence, remains as vivid and unblemished now as it did in 1962.
Haigh (whose previous feature was the gay romance “Weekend”) builds this portrait with an accumulation of seemingly humdrum details. At first Geoff’s habit of sneaking cigarettes, despite his already compromised health, might be a little running gag, the kind of thing used in movies about cute “old folks.” But it’s a small index of his ability to keep secrets, and of the damage caused by that.
When Kate talks to a friend about choosing the pop songs that will play at the anniversary party, it sounds like a litany of Sixties tunes — what could be ominous about the Platters or the Turtles? But we are being set up for the film’s devastating final sequence, a long and awkward scene that Charlotte Rampling owns almost without saying a word.
Courtenay is superb, but this is Rampling’s movie. Often cast for her elegant looks and aura of unapproachable mystery, here Rampling plays a woman caught off guard, her complacency shaken.
When Geoff makes a speech at the anniversary party, he goes on for quite a while. But our eyes are on Kate. Rampling’s body language and her tight, careful smile are perfectly deployed here; 45 years of going along with it are coming to a head.
Movies have a tendency to romanticize secret-keeping, I think; it’s often an evocative plot device. One of the refreshing things about “45 Years” is the way it takes apart that notion, instead showing the harm that might come from an unacknowledged secret between two people.
What else has or hasn’t happened because of Geoff’s feeling for a dead woman? What else was put into ice all those years ago? “45 Years” creates a haunted miniature by allowing those questions to be raised, and then letting them hang in the air like smoke.
“45 Years” (4 stars)
Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay star as a couple whose marriage is cracked by a piece of news from the past. From small-scaled material, director Andrew Haigh has created a devastating portrait of the damage that can be done by secrets. The two actors are superb.
Rating: R, for language, subject matter
Showing: SIFF Cinema, Uptown