For at least three decades, close observers of the movie industry have complained that American film culture has become an infantocracy, dominated by comic-book movies and their prequels, sequels and reboots. Thank goodness, then, for Oscar season and the (mostly European) movies that the nomination process serves to illuminate.
It's this time of year when grown-ups come out — not to play, exactly, but to provide audiences with an honest, sometimes merciless glimpse of aging, from the untaut beauty of spreading bodies and the miracle of enduring devotion to severe illness and loss. In recent years, such films as "Amour," "Another Year" and "Le Week-End" have all plumbed the psychic and physical realities of people older than 65.
Charlotte Rampling plays Kate Mercer, who lives with her husband, Geoff (Tom Courtenay), in cozy retirement among the Norfolk Broads in England, a district of waterways and quiet, pastel-colored flatlands that echoes the subdued comfort of the Mercers' domestic life. As "45 Years" gets underway, Kate is returning from her regular walk when the postman drops off a letter, the contents of which will exert a quietly insistent pull on Kate and Geoff's carefully practiced rituals of intimacy and detachment — an intrusion made all the more dramatic by the fact that, in one week, they will be throwing a party to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary.
Nobody gets mauled by a bear in "45 Years." The survival of the galaxy doesn't hang in the balance, nor the future of the free world. But the stakes couldn't be higher in a film that begins as a tasteful, restrained chamber piece and winds up packing the emotional punch of an edge-of-your-seat thriller.
Writer-director Andrew Haigh, adapting a short story by David Constantine, superbly sets out the inner and outer worlds inhabited by the Mercers, who live in companionable solicitousness, punctuated by playful, sweetly sensuous moments. Clearly unaccustomed to fighting, they tiptoe around the implications of the letter, which has landed into their settled life together like a loudly ticking bomb.
Just how it will detonate lends "45 Years" a taut atmosphere of suspense, as the Mercers go about their quotidian life with seeming serenity. Although Geoff is the official recipient of the letter, it's Kate who most palpably experiences its reverberations, which start as fleeting annoyances and take on force and meaning as they sink in.
Although Rampling is the one with the Academy Award nomination, Courtenay is just as superb as a man whose character comes into focus gradually, as befits the rhythms of a film that offers a master class in tone, structure and pacing. Haigh knows how to thread a story in a way that makes it feel deliberate and spontaneous, so that when it reaches its climax, viewers feel that it's both inevitable and utterly devastating.
"45 Years" leads viewers to a literally breathtaking conclusion, as we wait while the female protagonist makes a simple but life-changing choice. A human being grapples with the epic implications of one decision. That stunned, rushing sound you hear is an entire theater exhaling.