Movie review of “45 Years”: An exquisitely painful portrait of a collapsing marriage. Rating: 4 stars out of 4.

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In the beautifully acted drama “45 Years,” a marriage lives and dies; we watch its agonized struggle, like a butterfly impaled on a pin. It’s a quiet movie, taking place over a week in the lives of Kate and Geoff Mercer (Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay), a retired British couple happily anticipating a party for their 45th anniversary. In the opening scenes, Geoff receives unexpected news: The body of his long-ago girlfriend, who died in a mountain accident years before he met Kate, has been recovered. “They’ve found Katya,” he tells Kate with a quavery desperation in his voice. “My Katya.”

It’s a tiny bit of news, a pinprick, but it lets the air out of their marriage. Kate tries to make a little joke — Katya, she says, must still look like she did in 1962 — but Rampling lets the laugh die on her face. From there, the Mercers go about their lives as the week plays out, but something’s off, something’s festering. Unable to stop herself, Kate begins digging through boxes in the attic, trying to understand what this woman meant to her husband for so many years. Ultimately, she confronts Geoff about the ghost in their marriage: “She’s been standing in the corner of this room, all along, behind my back.”

Movie Review ★★★★  

‘45 Years,’ with Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James. Written and directed by Andrew Haigh. 95 minutes. Rated R for language and brief sexuality. SIFF Cinema Uptown.

Writer/director Andrew Haigh (“Weekend”) knows that he has gold with the pairing of Rampling (who’s been nominated for an Oscar for her work in this film) and Courtenay, and his camera calmly watches as they tear our hearts in two. Courtenay’s Geoff has a fragility, a gentle vagueness; he doesn’t always seem to see Kate, and doesn’t know what she needs to hear. Rampling’s character, by contrast, is a slow-burn simmer. Watch her, as the story progresses and her smile grows less genuine, her eyes harder, her face masklike — until she boils over with one fierce, unforgettable gesture during the film’s final scene. The disappointment overwhelms her; it’s as if she laboriously opened a beautifully wrapped package, and found only emptiness inside.