‘45 Years’
Andrew Haigh
Stars: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

Global warming destroys. It certainly ruins the domestic tranquility, if not boredom, of Kate and Geoff, an English couple played by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay. They’re prepping for their 45th anniversary and generally living their aging liberal, public-radio-over-meals existence when a letter arrives with a truly bizarre form of news: the body of Katia, one of Geoff’s pre-Kate lovers, has been quite belatedly found.

Back in the mid-‘60s she had slipped into an ice crevasse. Only now, with climate change melting the most rigid of ice formations, has she been exhumed. Katia’s even intact, young as the day she left Geoff’s life and put him on the road to Kate, her replacement.

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“45 Years” never shows us the body, but it doesn’t need to. We can sense all that she was and all that she still is in the way Geoff lets slip to Kate about “my Katia.” We can see it in the way his perpetually half-dazed demeanor gives way to very English holding back of tears, and the way his body turns away from her, as though entering his warehouse of suddenly present memories.

And we can see it in the way Kate’s face turns ashen and her body, used to busying itself with mundane tea-making and food prep, freezes up. It’s not just another case of him having an old flame. It’s maybe not even that Katia, not Kate, might be Geoff’s true love, if he had to choose. It’s that an entire, large part of her longtime husband becomes activated, one she’s never seen before. Even after four-and-a-half decades, they’re strangers.

“45 Years” is the latest from Andrew Haigh, who cut his teeth on Ridley Scott behemoths but has, when he finally got to play with his own toys, favored intimate dramas with loads of breathing room. His shots are patient and open — long takes, some of them, but not the showoff types you see in “The Revenant.” They allow for actors to move, to find their characters both in sparse, sometimes withholding dialogue and in body language. They’re encouraged to find the space between lines, and the viewer is encouraged to see how rich, even scary people are on the inside. The human heart is as mysterious as the cosmos, and we can only intuit what’s in anyone else's head or what they will do.

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They won’t do much. As in “Weekend,” “45 Years” is short on plot, though we have something like a powder keg situation: The party, which Geoff was already reluctant to attend, doing it only for Kate, looms. As Geoff recedes into his memories, re-reading Kierkegaard and grouchily batting off his wife’s entreaties for him to open up, Kate turns into a ticking time bomb. She tries to busy herself with party prep, but how long will she last before sneaking up to the attic to dig up old photos of Katia — ones clearly taken by someone madly in love with her? Without ever upsetting the placid, retiree pace, “45 Years” gets us worked up for what Geoff or Kate will do when they’re suddenly at the center of a party celebrating their undying union.

The finale is a corker, but only in the sense that we’ve been trained over the film to scan their faces and body language for something, anything betraying a thought. It barely even makes a meal of casually running in the face of the idea that marriage gets easier, that people can be solved even after 45 years.

Ditto its presentation of people up in years. Geoff and Kate both act like emo 20-somethings, brooding and anguishing over feelings we’re led to believe will chill out with age. A lot of the tension and the heartache comes from watching two actors long established at withholding their feelings. Courtenay and Rampling are equals, but there’s even more of a frisson from watching Rampling, a longtime ice queen, looking atypically vulnerable, her face softening into a look of barely concealed panic. In a way it’s the year’s most nerve-jangling thriller on top of being unbearably moving.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge