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45 Years’ explores the strains in a lifelong relationship

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On the eve of his anniversary with Kate, Geoff gets pulled into drama from his past.

Three and a half stars

45 Years Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James. Directed by Andrew Haigh. Rated R. Opens Friday at Century Suncoast.

At nearly 70 years old, Charlotte Rampling has received her first-ever Oscar nomination for 45 Years, but it would be a mistake to think that the recognition is just a belated acknowledgement of the outstanding work she’s done throughout her career. Rampling’s performance in 45 Years is as strong as any she’s given in the past five decades, and it anchors a movie that’s sometimes too understated for its own good.

Rampling plays Kate Mercer, one half of a married couple about to celebrate their 45th anniversary. Kate and her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) live a quiet, seemingly idyllic retired life, full of dog walks and tea with friends, and they have the kind of intimate comfort that comes from spending nearly a lifetime together. But then Geoff gets some unexpected news: Climbers in the Swiss Alps have discovered the frozen body of his former girlfriend, who died in a hiking accident 50 years earlier, before Geoff and Kate even met. Despite the distant nature of the trauma, Geoff feels his whole life shaken up, and Kate finds herself jealous of a woman who’s been dead for decades.

Writer-director Andrew Haigh, working from a short story by David Constantine, expresses the cracks in the couple’s relationship with so much subtlety they’re sometimes hard to fathom, but that’s to be expected when Kate and Geoff themselves don’t entirely understand their own reactions. There’s a twist of sorts about an hour into the movie, and Haigh conveys it quietly and without fanfare, never even mentioning it again. But the devastating effects of the revelation are clear on Kate’s face, thanks to Rampling’s expertly composed performance. So much of her acting in this movie is reacting, with Haigh training the camera closely on her as Kate discovers more about her husband’s hidden past.

Like Haigh’s previous feature, 2011’s Weekend, 45 Years is a small-scale story about how the little moments in a relationship add up to something significant, whether that relationship is just beginning or has endured for many years. In the end, Kate and Geoff might not realize how much these revelations have changed their relationship, but Rampling’s performance makes it clear things between the two will never be the same.

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