The first thing you have to consider in 45 Years -- at least to viewers of a certain age, or those with a decent knowledge of British films of the 1960s and '70s -- is the casting. Just as 2012's Amour resonated with the presence of early Nouvelle Vague figures Emmanuelle Riva and Jean-Louis Trintignant, 45 Years presents us with an aging couple played by Tom Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling, knowing that behind their well-earned wrinkles we'll recognize the faces of the once-boyish Billy Liar and the (almost) ageless beauty who began her career in the background of essential "swinging London" comedies such as The Knack.
There's more to 45 Years than simply playing to the art-house nostalgia of older filmgoers — but not much. The film takes place over roughly a single week in the lives of a married couple, Geoff and Kate Mercer, as they plan a party for their 45th anniversary. For large portions of the film we simply follow the quiet pace of their rural life: Kate walks the dog and gives her more fragile husband a ride into the nearby village to visit his former co-workers. It's calm and aesthetically pleasing, a bucolic slice-of-life in which nothing much happens.
Indeed, it appears that the Mercers are living a stable, settled life with very little drama, until they receive a piece of news so unusual that it can only be described in detail (readers who don't want to be exposed to a significant element of the plot should skip to the next paragraph now). Fifty years earlier, before their marriage — before even meeting Kate — Geoff had been on vacation in the Alps with his girlfriend, Katya. It ended badly when the young lady fell into a crevasse, never to be seen again. Now, just as he's preparing for his anniversary with Kate, he receives news that the girl's body has been found, perfectly preserved in ice, and he's the only living person who can officially identify her for the authorities.
The discovery of Katya creates a small, barely noticeable fissure in the day-to-day lives of the couple. Geoff surreptitiously resumes smoking and loses interest in a planned dinner. Kate continues to plan the anniversary party but becomes increasing irritable as she tries to select music for the event. (Gary Puckett is definitely out, and it's rather strange to hear the Turtles' "Happy Together," the go-to feel-good song in dozens of films, as a source of melancholy.)
45 Years poses questions about love and memory and connections between the present and the past — is Geoff still in love with Katya? Should Kate feel jealous of someone who has been dead for half a century? — but rather than resolve them, the film lets them fade away as if they were insignificant distractions from the mundane details of village life.
45 Years is ultimately little more than a collection of scenes whose effect rests solely on the viewer's fondness for Rampling and Courtenay, and their willingness to see the actors as surrogates for the increasingly diminished boomer generation. Nonetheless, there is one brief scene which hints at the themes of memory and aging and nostalgia that director Andrew Haigh otherwise lets slip away: Kate goes up to the attic and finds old films of Geoff and Katya on vacation. For a brief moment, as the flickering images reveal the lost youth of her husband and the innocent beauty of his former love, I was reminded of the films of Michelangelo Antonioni (a hero using images to uncover a mystery in Blow-Up, and a missing person on vacation in L'Avventura).
Is it a stretch, or is Haigh aiming for a kind of post-retirement version of the unresolved lives and unsatisfying cities of art-house films from when Courtenay and Rampling were young and not so innocent? 45 Years hints at ideas about life but remains silent: The Angry Young Men and Swinging Young Things have stopped their fighting and moved to the countryside.