Kate Mercer (Charlotte Rampling) is out walking her dog one morning when she meets the postman, who used to be one of her pupils she taught at school before she retired. They chat briefly and she takes her mail, then goes inside to see her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) at the breakfast table. There's a letter for him and he opens it, reads it then goes rather quiet. Kate asks him what it is and is told someone has sent an official missive to inform him Katya has been found, her body frozen in a glacier that has just been uncovered by the effects of climate change. But who was Katya? Kate has never even heard of her, so is surprised to learn she was her husband's girlfriend before she was on the scene...
There's a song by the rap group House of Pain called Jump Around that has been adopted as one of the all-time great party anthems to emerge from the nineteen-nineties. Its many fans think it's a tune about letting your hair down and having a great night, but it isn't, if they would take the time to listen to the lyrics they would discover it's a song about how satisfying beating the shit out of people - including women - can be, which you would think was less than conducive to the atmosphere of enjoying good fun, yet as not many are interested about the content, it continues to lord over the other cheerier ditties as the apex of something to dance like a loon to. The point being, not everyone listens to what popular song lyrics are.
Nowhere has this irony been more explicit than in the closing stages of director Andrew Haigh's drama 45 Years (Ben Stiller explaining Puff the Magic Dragon to Robert De Niro in Meet the Parents doesn't count, because that really is about a magic dragon called Puff, no matter what he says), as the whole film has been about the week leading up to the anniversary gathering at the village hall where the Mercers live and all their friends will be there. The trouble is, that week has been thrown into suppressed turmoil by the revelation about Katya, and Kate is now bristling at the thought of there being a rival to Geoff's affections for her, that in spite of the other woman having been dead since 1962.
This was a very low key drama, to the point that some viewers could miss what was happening at all, but Haigh made sure for the patient that if you spent enough time with these people in their private moments you would begin to understand the vast reserves of pain that letter had opened up for both the Mercers. Although Geoff denies it to the extent of being blind to the heartache this is causing his wife, Kate is not and never will be the love of his life, that was Katya and Kate understands that only too well now, making those forty-five years they have spent together a potential waste of time when it now feels like an artifice in front of Geoff's inner turmoil at losing this woman at such a crucial point in his existence, and Kate just has to venture up to the attic and check out his old slides to find out precisely how crucial - Rampling's famously cool demeanour was dented with every successive scene in a great example of casting.
The ghosts of the past continue to re-emerge. It seems like a joke when Gary Puckett starts singing "Young girl, stay out of my mind!" on the car radio and Kate immediately switches it off sourly, but it’s a fact there will always be reminders not only of the paths you failed to take and which may have been better for you in the present, but also of the outright tragedies that echo their damage and woe. There must be a stage when those echoes start to die out, but 45 Years illustrates that will only happen once you are dead yourself, so there are always opportunities for old wounds to be reopened, which is exactly what happens to the slightly dotty but largely introverted Geoff and when his emotions are revived, mixed to say the least, and he is able to affect Kate as well. It doesn't come across like much for most of the film, but when it reaches the big dance at the end and we start to realise why Geoff has chosen a particular tune as "our song" for him and Kate, the effect is highly unsettling. Not because of any past violence or crimes, but simply because of love, and how that deep affection can destroy, maybe more than help and improve in some circumstances.