Lawrence Toppman

Rampling, Courtenay carry ‘45 Years’ on their elderly shoulders

Every so often, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tosses a best actress nomination to a veteran who has long been overlooked for awards, has no chance of winning but gets a deserved moment of acclaim.

The last dozen years have brought us Emmanuelle Riva in “Amour,” Imelda Staunton in “Vera Drake,” Julie Christie in “Away From Her” and this winter’s Charlotte Rampling in “45 Years.”

She’s being acclaimed more for half a century in movies than extraordinary work in this terse drama, which writer-director Andrew Haigh adapted from David Constantine’s short story “In Another Country.” Yet her quiet performance anchors this simple film, along with Tom Courtenay’s as the husband who doesn’t understand her in old age – and, in retrospect, perhaps never did.

Geoff and Kate Mercer are about to celebrate their 45th anniversary in England when he gets bizarre news. Katya, a young woman Geoff loved before he met Kate, has been found 50 years after falling into a crevasse while they were hiking. A glacier has shifted, revealing her remains, and Swiss authorities are notifying him as “next of kin.”

That was just a matter of form, Geoff tells Kate. He told the Swiss they were married so they could stay in the same room in hotels. But as he begins to ponder his past obsessively – and as she does some digging, so to speak, of her own – she starts to wonder if her relationship with her husband goes as deep as she’d thought.

I suspect reactions will divide along a gender-based fault line. Men might say, “Katya was gone before he knew Kate. Why would he tell her about a dead woman? Why wouldn’t he be nostalgic over memories of a love cut short so cruelly?”

Women would reply, “If he never told her about an event of such crucial importance, what else has he failed to say or kept secret over the years? If he can’t see that his new fixation hurts Kate, does he really understand or respect her?”

Haigh pushes a little too hard. The similarity of names – Kate and Katya – suggests an invidious comparison between an adventurous young woman literally frozen in time and a staid old former schoolteacher. Kate and Geoff’s favorite song is “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” about a deluded partner who realizes too late she never understood her lover’s intentions.

Courtenay, whose character’s cluelessness prevents him from giving a wide-ranging performance, still registers strongly. (He had his Oscar shots long ago, for 1965’s “Doctor Zhivago” and 1984’s “The Dresser.”)

Rampling carries the film, appearing in virtually every scene. I have watched her in more than a dozen movies and cannot ever remember hearing her raise her cultured, collected voice. But even when she speaks softly to her spouse in “45 Years,” it can land like a fist.

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45 Years

Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay.

Writer-director: Andrew Haigh.

Length: 95 minutes.

Rating: R (language, brief sexuality).