45 Years is a kind of ghost story, as memories, personal histories, and truths, are found to have been hidden within dark crevices all along.
Midway through 45 Years, Kate (a mesmerizing Charlotte Rampling) reminisces with husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) about the early years of their relationship, the night they met, their first home, their first dog. “Those memories,” Kate sighs, “they’re the things, aren’t they?” She's remembering good things, looking back during the busy week leading up to the couple's 45th anniversary party. But throughout Andrew Haigh’s near-faultless marital drama, other things are emerging.
One comes up as the film opens. Kate is walking with her dog through the idyllic Norfolk countryside, all wide, flat fields, neat lanes, and ancient waterways. When she gets home, Geoff is there. He opens a letter and sinks into stunned silence. The letter is written in German, and though he remembers “the verbs more than the nouns”, he understands the gist of it: a body has been discovered. Kate frantically repeats, “Who?” and finally, she gets her answer.
It’s Katya, Geoff's former girlfriend, who had fallen through a fissure in the Swiss Alps when climbing with him 50 years earlier. “I know I told you about my Katya,” whispers Geoff, and in that tiny word "my", Kate is left to observe a reunion between her husband and the woman who came before her.
Over the next few days, as Kate prepares for the party, Geoff begins to share the circumstances leading to her fall. Imagining her perfectly preserved in the ice, he's at once comforted and unnerved. "How strange would that be, though?" he wonders. "She'd look like she did in 1962. And I look like this." Kate remains patient and supportive as she listens, but the remark unsettles her. She feels increasingly as if she's in competition with this younger woman and this earlier relationship, both cut off in their prime.
Still, Kate and Geoff's marriage has been happy. Childless, they've evolved into an easy routine and companionship. Their conversation about their early years is a contented one, regretting only that they hadn't taken more pictures of themselves over the years. As Kate puts it, so gently, "You had a camera once."
Her recollection precipitates a further unearthing of Katya. Later that night, Kate awakens to find Geoff rummaging through the attic. He dismisses her concerns, explaining he found the old camera. "You didn't find it. You went looking for it," she snaps and, seeing him holding a photo, she demands he hands it over. As Kate silently takes in the picture of her younger rival, we see a sudden awareness of her own insecurity, a change in self-understanding that is at once profound and deeply disturbing.
Kate's point of view shapes the film, as she sees herself anew while also watching Geoff come to grips with his loss and the finding of Katya. He sneaks back to smoking, and looks for a book on climate change. The melting glaciers could burst like a dam one day, he surmises, and that event would sweep Katya's body down to the valley, a more likely scenario for recovering her than him trekking through the Alps at his age.
Then he starts walking to the village again and puts on old records, insisting that Kate dance with him. He even suggests they have sex, sort of, joking, "I hope I remember how." Kate does her best not to worry, imagining that a renewed interest in intimacy might be a reaction to their upcoming celebration. She doesn't question his sincerity or the source of his revived energy and desire. She believes him, she remembers the good things.
Perhaps she should. We see that the question of Geoff's sincerity is central to Kate's developing crisis. At first, he appears dependent on Kate: she is nurturing, even maternal, reminding him to take his medications, bandaging his injured hand. Later, though, her efforts lead to tensions. She quietly chides him about smoking and he dutifully promises her he'll stop. But is he telling her what she wants to hear, and not just about the smoking? She had scolded herself earlier for feeling jealous of Katya, of a relationship that was before she ever met Geoff, but she can't help it now.
Kate's fears of a past that's not hers start to haunt her. Indeed, Haigh says that 45 Years, based on David Constantine's short story "In Another Country", is a "kind of ghost story". His film works with familiar devices of that genre, creaking floor boards, howling winds, and an eventual look at Katya, as a slide image projected on a patterned sheet, at once unsubstantial and crushing.
When the anniversary party finally arrives, Geoff behaves just as he should, and provides a moving toast to his wife, complete with tears. "The choices we make when we are young are pretty bloody important," he cries, referring, of course, to choices he and Kate made 45 years ago. But for Kate, it's all the other innumerable choices made after they were married that seem most important now, as she's unsure with whom her husband has made them.