April 14 2016 01:41 PM

’45 Years’ an exercise in empathy

“45 Years,” from British filmmaker Andrew Haigh, is one of the few films I’ve seen recently that can be described as truly transporting. What I mean is that it takes you out of yourself and allows you the see the world from the perspective of another human being, and, by extension, people like him or her. I could not recommend the resulting film highly enough.

The film centers on Kate (Charlotte Rampling) and Geoff Mercer (Tom Courtenay), a childless retired elderly couple who are a week away from celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary. Geoff receives a letter informing him that the body of his long dead lover, Katya, has been found in a glacier in Switzerland. She fell into a crevasse and died while the two were on a hike in the early ‘60s, years before Kate and Geoff met. Geoff initially admits to it being “only a bit of a shock,” but it becomes clear that he is affected deeply by the discovery. He retreats inward, lashes out emotionally and ruminates — sometimes out loud to Kate — about his relationship with Katya.

What’s refreshing to see, however, is that the film does not focus on Geoff, but on Kate and how she reacts to the situation — or rather, how she reacts to Geoff’s reaction. Kate must contend with the ghost of a woman she never knew and with the possibility of a better life Geoff could have had with Katya. This kind of movie demands outstanding work from its performers, and both are magnificent. Courtenay is wonderful, but Rampling is the star. Both she and the script show Kate’s vulnerability and her pain but also allow a menace and frustration to show through the cracks. This is one of the best performances I’ve seen in a long time, and it’s wonderful to see two great actors get complex roles worthy of their talents — even after the age of 50 (gasp!). There definitely needs to be more films like this. And I don’t necessarily mean films starring and made for older people, although that is also true.

No, what I mean is that the direction and filmmaking have a patience, a lived-in feel, a wisdom to it, reflecting the experience and lives of elderly people. It reflects their aged perception of the world and how they operate within it. Practically every scene is filmed in one long, fluid take or in a simple shot/reverse shot, never cutting around quickly or using flashy, exaggerated camera moves. It’s like how an older, less energetic director would make a film: not a lot of cutting, shooting things without fuss or showiness. Or like how an elderly person would recount a story to you: slowly and quietly — but effectively and rivetingly because it carries the weight of real experience and time. Andrew Haigh belies his relatively young age of 43 (42 when he shot the film) and reveals a depth of understanding about human nature and a keen observational eye for how ordinary people live their lives, how even the smallest gestures and simplest verbal declarations can have a damaging emotional and psychological effect on people. Drama doesn’t need to center on superheroes, politicians, celebrities or criminals to be compelling. You just need people, with all their complexities and varied experiences.

Form follows function so well in this film. A lesser movie might provide us flashbacks, pictures or a video of the past events that are recalled throughout the film. But “45 Years” doesn’t, instead staying right where the real drama is happening, right where everything is always happening: the present. We don’t get to retreat into the past to see it again, relive it and gain some catharsis. The past, those memories, are there, but they are unseen, hanging over the Mercers like a ghost, haunting them with intimations of better days, of what might have been.

And while this film is worth watching, it is also difficult to watch. Not in the way that a horror film or something particularly gruesome or disturbing film is hard to watch, but more from an emotional stand point. It’s difficult to see Geoff tortured and mocked by his memories, to see him withdraw into them, emotionally unavailable to his wife. It’s not easy to see Kate struggle with the news of Katya, to try and put on a brave, supportive face while still trying to plan a party celebrating a relationship that might not have been.

“45 Years” is an almost unbearably sad film. No, you likely won’t cry, but you’ll feel that deep, aching sadness throughout the film. And just when you feel Kate, Geoff and the film have put that sadness behind them in the film’s final moments, it comes back harder than before. This is why I go to see films, not escape reality and complex emotions, but to feel and understand them. Too few films represent these types of people, people who have aged past their prime, but whose lives we have a wealth to learn from. Too few films allow you to enter into the inner life of someone else. And when they come along, they should not be missed.