In the closing days of last month’s Shanghai International Film Festival I scored tickets to a sold-out screening of Andrew Haigh’s gripping dose of quiet dynamite 45 Years, which comes out in the UK on 28th August.

Charlotte Rampling in 45 Years

45 Years (2015 - UK) written & directed by Andrew Haigh / short story by David Constantine / starring Charlotte Rampling, Tom Courtenay, Geraldine James, David Sibley, Dolly Wells / cinematography by Lol Crawley / companies: The Bureau, Film4, BFI Film Fund, Artificial Eye

Set under the steel skies of Norfolk 45 Years chronicles five days in the life of Kate & Geoff, a happily married elderly couple preparing a large party to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary. As the big night draws near Geoff receives a letter telling him that the body of his former lover has been discovered preserved in ice in the Swiss Alps, fifty years after she fell to her death with Geoff as the helpless witness. From here a lifetime of unacknowledged grief and curdled jealousy rises to the surface. Soon it becomes apparent that Kate has been living in a house haunted by a woman she never even knew. Draughts blow through the attic where Geoff’s old slide projector lurks like a poltergeist, filled with photos of his fateful trip to Switzerland. It soon dawns on Kate that she might be the odd one out in a crowded cottage. It is a sort of domestic horror film, playing less to our fear of ageing and more to our fear that we might look back on our lives and find ourselves terribly dull.

Tight as a drum at 93 minutes, Haigh’s third feature is insidiously brutal and more compelling than any explosive blockbuster. This is due in no small part to Haigh and cinematographer Lol Crawley composing their story with casual-looking but deliberate all-in-one master shots that lay out and examine each setting and the interactions therein like dioramas of truths withheld and unspoken promises turned poisonous with rot.

Charlotte Rampling is frequently the best thing in any film or programme she does but 45 Years marks a career performance for which she received a Silver Bear at this year’s Berlin Film Fest, along with her co-star Tom Courtenay. As Kate the gentle melancholy of her smile belies an emotional exhaustion near the end of a quiet existence. Her involuntary grimace when deep in thought is dignified in its veracity; imbued with an aura of heartbreak within the creamy, hooded globes of her eyes. As is the case with her contemporary, Julie Christie, Rampling’s face is like a rare instrument that no else has the knowledge to play and she performs consistently without a shred of vanity. As “no makeup” performances go, Courtenay and Rampling stick it to any younger counterparts as they tremble, stoop and wince their way through scenes played for maximum domesticity - pacemaker scars and all. Courtenay hasn’t lost the vulnerability or anarchic glint that characterised his breakout performances in Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962) and Billy Liar (1963). In many ways Geoff is like the decrepit Billy Liar that could have been if he had gotten on the train with Julie Christie and pulled out of Halifax (then gone with her to the Alps and witnessed her tragic death).

Tom Courtenay as Geoff and Charlotte Rampling as Kate in 45 Years

Despite the sparse nature of its imagery and emotional landslides 45 Years deserves recognition as a frequently hilarious film, capable of weaving comedy into its plot and character moments. Tom Courtenay’s tirade on the bourgeois excesses of his former colleague “Red Len” should ring true for anyone who has ever spent time with a Northern leftist a few pints into the afternoon. Levity can even be found when Haigh chooses to spell out Kate’s turmoil in bold font by watching Rampling’s face turns sour as old grapes at the bubbly voice of a pre-recorded tour guide musing on the Norfolk Broads that almost weren’t: “What if the Romans had found peat somewhere else in Britain? What if they’d dug these great waterways somewhere else?”

Innocuous, at first, Haigh’s careful use of on-screen and off-screen space builds the effect of creating a gulf of meaning in the words exchanged between Kate and Geoff. Witnessing a visual approach like this to conversations in a realist film is nothing short of electrifying and further confirms Haigh’s talent in the creation of this hybrid visual style that feels part-Bergman, part-Spielberg. Few recent films can claim to devastate their audience by simply pulling focus to reveal a major plot point. For all the technical mastery on display 45 Years is anything but showy and quite easy to underestimate until the silent explosion of bitter resentment on Kate and Geoff’s 45th anniversary bash. Here Haigh’s novelistic approach to the classical Hollywood “oner” revels in the power of cinema as Roger Ebert’s so-called empathy machine; inspiring nostalgia, sorrow and rage in equal measure as the thrust of an entire scene changes within the course of a single long take.

Critics all over the world have been right to draw comparisons between Andrew Haigh and Ingmar Bergman. It would be hard to believe that anyone other than a Scandinavian or a Brit would tell this deeply pessimistic story with so much heart, yet so little sentimentality. If I might be so bold, let’s get Charlotte Rampling a gig in a Swedish murder mystery series and send Andrew Haigh to Iceland on a spa retreat. God knows he deserves it after delivering two of the boldest British films of the last five years (go out and see his breakout film Weekend from 2011) and leading two seasons of Looking on HBO. If it is not already clear that Andrew Haigh has arrived as a major storyteller it will soon become undeniable when 45 Years scores more and more love during the coming end-of-year list making season.