(Image courtesy of the Chicago International Film Festival)

(Image courtesy of the Chicago International Film Festival)

51st Chicago International Film Festival Main Competition

"45 YEARS"-- 3 STARS

Acting is more than just great lines and fancy speeches.  Some of the best elements of true performance come when the camera is on and no one is saying a word.  You won't find a better clinical example of that half of acting than from a 2015 film than in "45 Years" starring newly-minted Academy Award nominee Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay.  You will see exactly why she earned her nomination.

Based on the short story "In Another Country" by David Constantine and directed by Andrew Haigh, "45 Years" chronicles a tumultuous week in the lives of Geoff and Kate Mercer, a well-off and retired couple with a handsome provincial home.  They are on track to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary with a lavish community reception, five years after missing the chance to celebrate their 40th.  With a week to go before the party, an unassuming letter arrives from the Swiss government containing jarring news for Geoff.  

Fifty years ago, before Geoff met Kate, his then-girlfriend, a woman named Katya, fell to her death in an alpine climbing accident.  The letter informs him that her perfectly-preserved body has been found all these years later in the thawing ice.  Katya's loss is a repressed scar from Geoff's past.  The letter causes memories and regrets of Katya to rush back to him.  The news clearly rattles Geoff and gives him pause.  The fractures undoing the seams of his usual personality do not go unnoticed by Kate.  The more she interprets about what Katya meant to Geoff, the more she questions her own value and the integrity of their marriage.

The strength of Rampling's performance comes in the quiet moments without dialogue, from pondering moments of confusion and anger all the way to the way a cigarette is smoked.  She wears the stress of her tortured heart on every line and hair that caresses her face.  Because of that foundation, when her muscles unclench and she does speak, her lines carry undeniable weight.  

The same goes for Courtenay.  We watch him go quiet when his thoughts wander.  We read what is haunting him and turning him more curt as the week progresses.  "45 Years" is a true slow-boiler of poignancy.  The methodical pace is suitable for the outstanding layers of emotional tension being built by brilliant nuance and characterization coming from both leads.  Without question, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay are the reasons to seek out Haigh's film and it all goes back to the unspoken realm of performance.

LESSON #1: THE LIVES WE LEAD BEFORE OUR LASTING MARRIAGES-- For many non-high school sweethearts, us married folk had relationships and loves before our marriages.  Our trajectories come with broken hearts and regrets that shape who we have become and are never really forgotten.

LESSON #2: IMAGINED THOUGHTS STEMMING FROM SECRETS ARE POTENT-- The churning mental imagery and interpretation you generate trying to determine something you don't know or something being kept from you can be torturous.  Some people can ignore and move onward, while others are eaten alive by not knowing and never let it go.

LESSON #3: GUILT CAN CAUSE LIES AND HONESTY IN EQUAL FASHION-- Secrets and regrets come with the weight of guilt.  That guilt can fuel people to either liberate themselves with the truth or compulsively make it worse with more dishonesty.