Two actors from the movie

Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling as a retired couple about to celebrate their anniversary in 45 Years

I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that the Academy Awards’ nominations for “best actress” haven’t raised as much controversy as nominations in other categories.

It’s a good thing that there haven’t been any obvious snubs—nothing on a par with Will Smith (Concussion) or Michael B. Jordan (Creed) in the “best actor” category. But it’s a bad thing that the likely reason there are no obvious snubs is that minority women were given few opportunities to tackle attention-getting roles in 2015.

If there’s one silver lining to this dark cloud, it’s that the “best actress” nominees are as generationally diverse as they are racially homogenous. Though Jennifer Lawrence (Joy), Brie Larson (Room) and Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) are all 20-somethings, Cate Blanchett (Carol) is 46. And Charlotte Rampling will turn 70 on Friday (Feb. 5), which, coincidentally, is the same day 45 Years opens in Columbus.

Rampling brings her decades’ worth of experience to the role of Kate Mercer, a retired teacher who’s preparing to celebrate 45 years of marriage with husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay). The childless couple, along with the latest in a succession of beloved dogs, share a comfortable life at their home in the English countryside.

From the beginning, it’s clear that Kate plays a semi-maternal role with her older husband. Geoff suffered a heart attack five years earlier, forcing them to cancel plans to celebrate their 40th anniversary. He remains feeble, and she chides him when he sneaks a smoke out in the yard.

Then Geoff receives shocking news. Authorities have found the frozen body of Katya, the German girlfriend he lost to a freak accident while they were hiking in the Swiss Alps in 1962. Geoff knew the woman before he ever met Kate, so the discovery would seem to have no bearing on the couple or their upcoming celebration. Soon, though, the dead woman begins to haunt their marriage almost as surely as if her spirit had invaded their home.

Geoff talks nostalgically of “my Katya” and of the younger, freer version of himself who loved her. He speaks vaguely of traveling to Switzerland to recover the body, but when Kate presses him on the topic, he admits it would be physically impossible.

For her part, Kate remains maternal and protective, but there are flashes of something resembling jealousy. For the first time, it seems, she asks what Katya looked like and demands to see the faded photo her husband still keeps.  

As the days tick down to the couple’s anniversary party—a major gala to which all their friends are invited—Kate becomes increasingly sure that her husband’s relationship with Katya was more important than he’s willing to admit. She even begins to believe the marriage they’re about to celebrate has been shaped by memories that had nothing to do with her.

Director/screenwriter Andrew Haigh, who adapted the drama from a short story by David Constantine, leaves much unsaid. In fact, he leaves just about everything unsaid, much like the couple at the center of the tale. Instead, he relies on Rampling’s face and inflections to communicate the raging turmoil that’s going on inside Kate’s head.

At times, Haigh relies too much on Rampling, as when Kate spends long minutes walking around while wrapped in gloomy thought. Otherwise, Rampling is well up to the task. Viewers who are both patient and observant will be rewarded with a devastating portrait of a woman who suspects she’s built her life in another woman’s shadow.  

As good as her performance is, Rampling probably won’t pick up the Oscar. My guess is that Larson will win, just as she did at the Golden Globes, for her affecting portrayal of a kidnapped mother in Room.

But Rampling deserves admiration for giving one of last year’s most subtle and understated performances in one of last year’s most subtle and understated films.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

45 Years, rated R, opens Friday (Feb. 5) at the Drexel Theatre and Gateway Film Center.




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