Geoff (Tom Courtenay) is on the other side of bypass surgery. He's become a little stagnant physically and mentally as he approaches his 45th wedding anniversary with wife, Kate (Charlotte Rampling).
While Geoff is a bit reclusive and fatigued, Kate remains vital, walking their dog in the morning and attending social gatherings. Geoff has reached a point where even reading a letter is challenging. One particular letter shakes him up in a way so jarring it will change the remaining days of his life.
A former girlfriend from decades earlier has been discovered in the ice of a glacier where she fell during a hiking expedition. Her body is perfectly preserved, a notion that doesn't sit well with the elderly, sickly Geoff. The news sparks up some strange behavior in him, and Kate can't help but notice that something is more than a little off.
In some ways, writer-director Andrew Haigh's 45 Years is a ghost story. No, we don't see the ghost of Geoff's past girlfriend as an apparition haunting the attic, but her memory is definitely haunting Geoff and, consequently, affecting Kate. Geoff's behavior has her thinking he might've lost the true love of his life when she slipped and fell on that hike nearly 50 years ago, and that many of his life choices since were influenced by her memory.
There's a sort of obvious psychology at work in 45 Years, but that's okay. Sometimes human behavior is a little obvious, perhaps cliché. Geoff used to be a smoker, and he starts smoking again after receiving the letter. He used to be a bit of a prick in arguments, and now he's become a bit more obstinate like the old days. As their 45th anniversary party approaches, his mood swings are sometimes drastic and temper fueled.
Kate has a choice to either notice these changes in Geoff and dwell upon them, or go about her party planning as if the glacier revelation is nothing but a thing. She doesn't choose the latter, and her prying and searching reveals further details about the past that make it obvious major life decisions, unfixable realities, are at play because of the woman frozen in ice.
Life events like the one that hits Geoff and Kate are, perhaps, better handled in the younger years. Some of the realities hitting Kate in this film are truly horrifying. The simple fact is it's too late to fix some wrongs, and impossible to alter Geoff's feelings. This is the reality being presented to her in her later years. Life, in this case, is very cruel.
Rampling received her first Oscar nomination for this film, and she deserves that nomination. She does subtle work here, subtler than the screenplay she's been provided at times. Kate's horror and dismay is portrayed in the slightest of facial expressions. It's the sort of expertly modulated performance that should've netted her an Oscar nomination for her work in Swimming Pool 13 years ago.
Haigh's writing and direction is mostly exemplary, primarily for the performances he gets from Courtenay and Rampling. Ramplings's the one getting the most accolades, but Courtenay is just as powerful. The simple reality of Geoff's plight is that his illness could've clouded his judgment, making him weaker and more vulnerable to the type of emotional shift he and Kate must endure. Courtenay does an expert job of displaying Geoff's almost understandable weaknesses.
45 Years is about as far away from a feel good movie you are liable to find. The look on Rampling's face during the final strains of "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" at her anniversary party is a telling sign that there are bad, tough times ahead for Kate. It's a well made, masterfully performed movie that basically states seemingly secure and pleasant lives can be ruined without warning or discretion, even when we are elderly. That's a party pooper, for sure.