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45 Years

Let’s talk about the Oscars for a moment. Specifically, there’s an ongoing controversy regarding the consistent lack of racial diversity among the nominees, particularly among the acting nominees. This is nothing new, of course: Last year was another awards ceremony in which all of the acting nominees were white, though Academy voters did at least throw a few token nominations toward Selma, in addition to a trophy and a teary-eyed standing ovation for the song by John Legend and Common for the same film.

But it seems that this year was a time too many. In the year of Straight Outta ComptonCreed, Chi-RaqConcussion, and Beasts of No Nation, it was apparently deemed unacceptable that so many well-qualified movies should be completely shut out. Save only for the white writers of Compton and the white supporting actor of Creed.

Reactions to the perceived whitewashing have been mixed. Spike Lee (ever the reliable firebrand) has pledged to boycott the Oscars entirely, alongside Jada Pinkett Smith. George Clooney, David Oyelowo, Mark Ruffalo, Lupita Nyong’o, and even President Barack Obama himself have all taken this opportunity to call for greater diversity in the Academy Awards and in the greater film industry as a whole.

To the Academy’s credit, AMPAS President Cheryl Boone Isaacs (a black woman, by the way) released a very clear statement in response to the controversy, pledging to review the rules and procedures for Academy membership and awards voting. And shortly afterwards, the Academy board unanimously agreed to several changes, with the goal of increasing diversity in the Academy membership and making sure that those new voices are given a solid chance of affecting who gets honored at the Oscars. Of course, this has the added benefit of helping convince the outside world that the Academy Awards are still relevant, which has been a constant uphill struggle for the past several years at least.

But then we have people like Michael Caine, Helen Mirren, Penelope Ann Miller, and Whoopi Goldberg, all of whom have argued that there was no racism at play here. The recurring argument seems to be that there were no talents of color worth voting for in 2015, and this was just how the nominations shook out. There’s also Ice Cube — the co-exec producer of his own Straight Outta Compton biopic — who said “How could you be mad because one other academy or guild or whatever didn’t say [we’re] No. 1 … It’s crying about not having enough icing on your cake.”

Though for me, the piece de resistance came from Charlotte Rampling, who claimed that the nomination controversy was “racist to white people.” That’s right, she played the “reverse racism” card. And it predictably went down like the goddamn Hindenburg. Though to be fair, Rampling did offer a weak-sauce backpedaling the next day. But at this point, the damage has more than likely been done.

It’s a huge deal that Rampling said all of this, because she’s up for a Best Actress award and I doubt that any amount of awards campaigning could make up for this disastrous faux pas and get her the win. Then again, it’s not like she ever stood a chance, as she was nominated for an obscure little movie called 45 Years. And if the Academy seriously gave a damn about that movie and its two lead performances, they might at least have extended the same courtesy that they did to Carol and nominated Tom Courtenay as well.

The film is a two-hander between Rampling and Courtenay, here playing a married couple (named Kate and Geoff Mercer) mere days before a huge party to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. Why the 45th? Well, they were going to hold this party for their 40th, but Geoff needed a heart bypass and the party had to be postponed for five years.

Things seem to be going well enough, until Geoff gets a letter from Switzerland. It seems that back in the ’60s, before our married couple had even met each other, Geoff went hiking with an old lover who disappeared in the mountains somewhere. And now her body has been found, stuck frozen in a glacier.

Where do I even begin with this massive can of worms?

First of all, there’s the fact that poor dead Katya has been kept on ice, perfectly preserved and 27 years old forever, while Geoff is 50 years older and his body is falling apart. (Paging Peggy Carter…) Suddenly, Geoff feels his age like never before, which leads to antisocial behavior in a lethargic and passive-aggressive sort of way. He also gains a morbid fascination with death, and I’m not just talking about his own death: Geoff starts actively researching climate change and how it’s going to kill us all.

Secondly, this leads Geoff to look back at his life in a very distressing way. He starts to wonder how things might have been. He regrets the things he did and the things he didn’t do. He wishes that he had kept more pictures, reminiscing about the memories he wishes he could revisit and the memories that he doesn’t even realize have faded away in his mind. After all, so little of his future is left that the past is really all he has.

(Side note: I didn’t realize this until literally the very second I sat down to type this review, but Geoff’s long lost girl was named Katya, and his wife of 45 years is named Kate. What a fascinating coincidence to write into the script.)

He talks about all of these things with Kate, who of course struggles in figuring out how to deal with all of this. After all, she’s getting older just as Geoff is, and she has to have her own thoughts about death and nostalgia just like he does. The difference is that even though she doesn’t really want to think about what might have been or what regrets she might have had, Geoff kinda forces her to, with the mood he’s in.

Even worse, there’s the question of how she deals with all this drama over Katya. On the one hand, Geoff is obviously in a great deal of pain over this young woman he had a history with, and Kate has to be there to help him through it. On the other hand, it’s obvious that Geoff really isn’t over Katya and there’s the question of how this baggage for another woman could affect their marriage. Is it even possible to be jealous over a woman who’s been dead for 50 years? If so, is it reasonable?

All of this leads to the question of how much Kate really wants or needs to know about Katya. There’s always the possibility that Geoff doesn’t know everything, that’s he’s trying to figure out something, or he’s keeping something secret about what happened between him and Katya. But then, if all of this is ancient history that happened long before Geoff and Kate even met, is it really any of Kate’s business? It raises the question of whether two people in a relationship have some degree of privacy from each other, and if so, then to what extent?

With all of that said, I don’t want to give the impression that the whole film is a melodrama about a dysfunctional marriage. Quite the contrary, Geoff and Kate have quite a few lovely scenes together in which they’re dancing, walking the dog, having dinner, making love, and so on. Rampling and Courtenay both do a stellar job of portraying a happy long-term marriage with all of its ups and downs, and their chemistry together is absolutely perfect. I came away from this movie feeling like I had met two actual people, and that’s all that I ask from a small and intimate character drama like this one.

Alas, this movie falls into a trap that’s sadly all too common with contemplative character pieces like this one. Specifically, that it’s only 95 minutes long and it still feels padded to extremity. I get that certain moments need space to breathe, but there are way too many shots and music breaks that feel unnecessary or overly long. I’ll grant that it all looks gorgeous, but there were far too many times when I was left wondering why the filmmakers were stalling and when they were getting back to the story. Then again, what I call a pretentious waste of screen time, maybe you’ll consider deliberate pacing specially designed for introspection. I’ll let you be the judge.

45 Years is a fascinating and deeply heartfelt meditation on aging, death, love, and marriage, all geared around a premise that’s compelling on so many levels. Of course, it also helps that the two lead performances are dynamite, and the visuals are very impressive. The pacing can be a slog at times, but those who are patient and open-minded enough to sit through it will be duly rewarded.

This is unquestionably a DVD rental.

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