In 45 Years a couple prepare to celebrate a benchmark anniversary of their lifelong marriage. This is one of those celebrations that couples do after years of devotion where everybody you know attends, and everybody parties and dances. Right before the big event the husband learns that his previous fiancée’s body has been found frozen decades after she was lost in a glacier accident during a mountain expedition. The wife knew nothing about her husband’s previous lover.

So begins 45 Years, a film directed by Andrew Haigh, based on a short story by David Constantine. When Haigh was at SXSW five years ago with his previous film Weekend he talked about 45 Years as his next project: “I went back and forth on projects but the story kept drawing me back to it. These things always take so long. It takes long enough to write and after you’ve written it you have to get money to make it, and then cast it,” says Haigh in a phone interview with Free Press Houston.

“It was a long process but I finally got it made. I shifted the perspective so it was very much told from the female perspective. I added this whole idea that the anniversary party was a looming event. A public declaration of the stability of their relationship”

45 Years offers stunning lead performances by Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay as the couple. Rampling, nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, does a slow burn as she learns more and more about the mystery woman. So many memories are kept in closets and attics.

“It makes sense in England because we have so many attics. We store our past around us, but we hide it from view,” says Haigh. “They are under the bed, or on the bookshelf or up in the attic. It’s like a pressure pushing down on them from the rafters while they’re lying in bed. The thing that’s disrupted this marriage has come up from the ground and their history pushing down. Pressure from both sides.”

Haigh shot the film in the county of Norfolk. “It’s a very interesting part of the country. Not a very well known part of England. Even people that live in England haven’t necessarily been there. The landscape is very flat, lots of horizons and big wide spaces,” explains Haigh.

“Metaphorically the past of this story was set in a world of glaciers and mountains and waterfalls and flowing rivers. And then the present is this strange flat landscape, where the boats sail slowly.”

Haigh’s previous films include Weekend, and Greek Pete (2009) as well as the current HBO series Looking. Previously Haigh worked as an assistant editor on several films helmed by Ridley Scott including Black Hawk Down and Kingdom of Heaven.

“I’m in the back room, I’m not there editing with Ridley Scott. But it was a fascinating learning experience, seeing how a really big film works. I was in Malta when they were shooting Gladiator. You see how things are constructed and how decisions get made. It was a good time for me,” recounts Haigh.

“I like the my films small, I like to have control. I like to know that the film you see in the cinema is the film I wanted it to be.”

45 Years opens this weekend in an exclusive engagement at the River Oaks Theatre.

— Michael Bergeron