The woman proudly wears her years on her face, with each line representing a badge of marital courage. At times, she feels she has endured her 45 years with this man more than she has enjoyed the time. But her commitment remains strong. And, as she plans a party to celebrate a wedding anniversary, she steadies her life with the contentment she feels about the choices she made.
Charlotte Rampling’s performance in the insightful film 45 Years is something to behold. The actress inhabits the role with layers of precise understanding of how this woman interprets her husband’s moods, priorities and quirks. Rampling uses each glance, every reaction, to paint a portrait of a woman who, years later, wants to believe she has made her husband happy, just as she begins to fear that she may have only been a substitute for the real love of his life.
That suspicion begins – as the couple finalizes plans for the party – when a reminder of the husband’s past invades their quiet life in an English village. Some 50 years before, as he traveled with an earlier love, that girl died. But her body was never found. On this lovely morning, after walking the dog, the wife must learn that the remains of her husband’s first love have been discovered. And, suddenly, a relationship that should be relegated to the past becomes much too present as memories threaten how these people view their relationship and each other.
Writer/director Andrew Haigh treats this simple framework with care, respect and considerable insight. Rather than give the characters big moments to express their hurt, he enables us to discover the impact of secrecy as this husband and wife go through their predictable routines. By limiting the revelations to what people may naturally discover, and the questions to how people would authentically inquire, Haigh makes us believe these people are actually married, this really is their house, this village their village, and the preparations for a party as painful as the lines on Rampling’s face reveal.
Her performance – well deserving of its Oscar nomination – is a collection of magical moments where she lets us into the character’s soul. Her work is as much a matter of how she expresses feelings with her face as what she says with her words. With each glance, each gesture, she reveals how anyone might feel when the foundations of a relationship begin to shake. The portrayal is so subtle, so nuanced, that it could have been easy for the Academy to overlook. Thank goodness enough voters took the time to watch the movie to see a great actress absorb such a rich character.
As a movie year, 2015 will be remembered for a number of films about maturing “baby boomers” including Lily Tomlin’s Grandma and Blythe Danner’s I’ll See You in My Dreams. What makes 45 Years stand apart is the precision of its narrative, the depth of its characters and the subtleties of its texture. Watching this film is like spending 90 rich minutes getting to know someone. And hoping to learn more.
- Content: High. This look at the realities of relationships offers insight into what it takes for partners to stay together through time.
- Entertainment: Medium. Thanks to a remarkable cast, and an insightful script, the film delivers a thought-provoking journey. But it does move slowly.
- Message: High. Because the film is so precise, so thoughtful, we easily identify with the issues that can fester between people.
- Relevance: High. Any opportunity to introduce older teenagers to the realities of relationships can be worthwhile.
- Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older teenagers, talk about what it takes for relationships to sustain over time.
(45 Years is rated R for language and brief sexuality. The film runs 95 minutes.)
4-1/2 Popcorn Buckets
How Movies Love Relationships
Charlotte Rampling’s strong performance in 45 Years – as a woman who wants to examine the realities and myths of her marriage – recalls other films from the movie archives that explore how people react to essential relationships.
The lovely actress Jean Simmons nabbed an Oscar nomination for playing a woman struggling to understand her marriage in The Happy Ending in 1969. Today the film’s song – What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life – is better remembered than the movie and, at the time, few people made their way to theaters to experience Simmons’ nuanced performance. Like Rampling, Simmons uses her eyes to communicate fear, excitement and disappointment, as she fills each glance with understanding of how it can feel to be left alone inside your own life.
Woody Allen brings his comic flair to a serious examination of marriage in the fascinating Husbands and Wives from 1992. By looking at a series of couples – played by such strong actors as Judy Davis (who should have won an Oscar), Alan Alda and Mia Farrow – Allen reveals what can happen when people shield someone they car for from the realities they don’t want to confront. By making us laugh, as Allen can do so well, the director makes us think of all the challenges that couples face when they try to share lives. And Davis is magnificent as a woman who wants to hold on to her illusions that weaken with the years.
The luminous Juliette Binoche brings her charisma and intelligence to a tricky role as a married woman living a fantasy in Certified Copy from 2010. Or is she? Does this lovely woman simply run into an author promoting a book or do they have more of a connection or a past? As the actress does with each portrayal, Binoche gets to the core of this woman, and the longing that defines her, as she frames the woman’s journey to discover what actually happens and what may be imagined. The ambivalence the actress builds into her performance reminds us that people choose how much they actually reveal.
An illuminating examination of the end of a marriage comes in Paul Mazursky’s An Unmarried Woman from 1978. As a woman trying to put her life together – after her husband leaves the relationship – Jill Clayburgh delivers a performance of range, depth and passion that was nominated for an Academy Award. Years later, this film ages well with its authentic insight into how people react to hurt, disappointment and change. Standing out in the supporting cast is Broadway’s Kelly Bishop who later played Emily Gilmore on television in The Gilmore Girls.
A year later, Clayburgh was again an Oscar nominee for a similar film, but not as the focus of the divorce proceedings. Instead, in Starting Over, she delights as a woman who falls for a man going through a divorce. As played by Burt Reynolds – in one of his most endearing performances – this man offers a touching look at the downside of marital dilemma. Candice Bergen won an Oscar nomination for her comic turn as his ex wife, her first opportunity to display the wit and timing she later nurtured on television in Murphy Brown.
While some films about relationships focus on what doesn’t work, the lovely On Golden Pond introduces two people who, actually, do live happily ever after. Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn won Oscars as Norman and Ethel Thayer, a retired professor and his wife, who spend their summers on a lake in New England. A visit from their daughter, well played by Jane Fonda, prompts the couple to examine the special mix of patience, humor and love that frame their relationship. And it prompts a lovely look at how veteran actors can make a movie work.
For a 1950s look at a complex relationship, take a trip to the South to visit Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof from 1958. While the specifics of the story are toned down from the Broadway version, the essence of the conflict remains: how two people who should be happy simply can’t find common ground. Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman received Oscar nominations for their fully realized portrayals of selfish people who aren’t sure if they want to change even if that means they could, together, be happy.
Finally, director Todd Haynes – who should have been nominated this year for Carol – takes a look at a marriage in the 1950s in the moving Far From Heaven from 2003. Julianne Moore (who was Oscar nominated) and Dennis Quaid (who should have been) paint painful pictures of a husband and wife trapped in the details of their trappings. By looking at the relationship through the lens of the period, and the directing style of the great Douglas Sirk, Haynes helps us learn how illusion can create its own momentum.
Yes, the Hollywood archives include many stories about people who pursue relationships. As long as individuals look for ways to connect, the movies will continue to find the couples to examine.
See you at the movies.