Gay viewers will know the name of director Andrew Haigh from his well-received features "Greek Pete" (2009) and "Weekend" (2011), as well as his role as producer and writer for the short-lived HBO gay dreamed "Looking." But mainstream audiences also found him a force to be reckoned with thanks to Haigh's bittersweet -- and biting -- film "45 Years," in which a retired couple grapple with an almost literal ghost from the past.
Charlotte Rampling, in an Oscar-nominated performance, plays Kate, the wife of Geoff (Tom Courtenay). The couple are planning a party for their 45th anniversary; the event is still a week away when a letter arrives to inform Geoff that the body of a women named Katya has been located in the ice of a glacier, a feat made possible thanks to global warming. Five decades earlier, in 1962, Katya had fallen into a fissure and died; her body was long inaccessible. Now, literally frozen in time, Katya remains as young as she was when she died. Her connection to Geoff is that he was listed as her next of kin -- such was their relationship. Though Geoff insists he had told Kate about all this long ago, Kate has no recollection of such details, and as the shocks of successive revelations coming to light rock and threaten to shatter her world, Kate is left wondering whether she really was the love of Geoff's life. Moreover, what does the very fact of Katya and Geoff's long-ago, tragically truncated relationship mean for her own life?
Haigh adapted the film from a short story, "In Another Country," by David Constantine, filling out the narrative and shifting the focus on to Kate's character. Charlotte Rampling is devastating in the role, partly -- one suspects -- because Haigh has a sense for how to work with her, and a profound sympathy for the female sensibility. Like Sirk, like Almodovar, Haigh has a way of seeing through a woman's eyes when he trains his camera on his lead actress. "45 Years" is a chilly, uneasy film, beset by doubt and loneliness; beat by beat, Haigh layers those emotions over the film like fine washes over an intense, dramatic painting.
The Criterion Collection Blu-ray comes complete with a 2K transfer that preserves the work -- on film -- of cinematographer Lol Crawley. Haigh himself appears in a short making-of documentary about the production of the film, as do Rampling, Courtenay, editor Jonathan Alberts, and producer Tristan Goligher; Haigh and Goligher also appear together on an audio commentary track. Film critic Ella Taylor provides a liner notes essay that succinctly identifies one crux of the film's power with the observation that, "movie narrative more commonly focuses on a nominal free spirit than on the one who may have held that spirit in check." Both Taylor and Goligher also take note of the fact that the stars -- longtime actors whose respective bodies of work encompass a significant portion of the last fifty years of cinema -- resonate with their characters, whose own marriage covers a similar span. We believe in their longtime relationship, in other words, because we've seen them on screen for such a long time.
Criterion often issues its authoritative editions of classic films decades after their initial release dates; sometimes, as with this title or the also-recently released "Cameraperson," the company unhesitatingly calls it with little ado. An edition from Criterion is tantamount to a declaration of masterpiece status. To see "45 Years" in Criterion's Blu-ray library is perfectly in keeping with the company's well-established body of releases. In other words, this film belongs on your shelf with all your other favorites. This film about love cast into doubt deserves all the love that critics and audiences have lavished upon it.