“We dance round in a ring and suppose, but the secret sits in the middle and knows.” — Robert Frost

Secrets are the stuff of literature, movies and poetry.

But in real life, in marriages, they can be deadly.

In writer-director Andrew Haigh’s soft-down tempo “45 Years,” Kate and Geoff (Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay) play a retired couple who live in the grassy, chilly countryside of rural England. We meet them a week before their 45th anniversary, and it seems that a big party has been planned somewhere, clearly not in this tiny cottage.

It starts with Geoff, who appears to still be recovering from bypass surgery some five years before and is still not handling life well.

He sits at his kitchen table and reads the paper, mumbling now and then to Kate, his glum, sweatered wife who mucks about tending to his every need.

Now and then Geoff walks outside in the typical gray English weather for a deadly cigarette.

This is not a particularly promising start for a movie, but this morning, a letter arrives that promises some hope. Geoff reads it aloud to Kate, and for a very, very long moment they stare at one another in typical British calm. Kate waits for an explanation. So do we. To us the news is startling and worthy of a Hitchcock tale. The body of a young woman has been found frozen and intact in a deep glacier on a mountain in Switzerland.

The dead woman is Katya, a German girl whom, we learn, was engaged to Geoff in 1962, long before he met Kate.

Together the couple sit in the remains of the day in the kitchen, pondering the news. Kate wonders, as we certainly do, why Geoff, in all these 45 years, never discussed this terrible event with her.

“I thought I had,” he says.

“Perhaps you did,” she answers.

“I think I did.”

“I don’t remember,” she says.

Really? Of course Geoff had had a serious heart event and appears feeble with seriously weakened cognitive skills. One forgets things: to pay the gas bill, the time he broke his leg, or a birthday. But seeing one’s fiancee drop into an ice cave and die? Oh, the British.

The saving grace bestowed upon us is that we’re given two remarkable actors giving us a lesson in film acting.

Both appear to be doing almost nothing, and still we watch them like peddlers at their door.

Great actors like these two, and Brando in “The Godfather,” Henry Fonda in “The Grapes of Wrath,” and Jimmy Stewart (yes, Stewart) in “Vertigo” can make doing “nothing” grab us awake. Rampling and Courtenay’s careers have long demonstrated they are masters of subtlety, but here, it’s almost Pinteresque.

Of course Andrew Haigh’s intent here is to emphasize the destructive force of secrecy in a relationship, to focus on the tiny moments of such destruction. Edward Albee did it in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe,” but at the top of his voice. Haigh does it here in whispers and shadows.

Courtenay, a good actor, has always played the same character with the exception of Pasha in “Dr. Zhivago.” One can say the same of Rampling who has long mastered dark, troubled women.

But in “45,” it’s Rampling, whose silences are deeper and whose eyes explain it all. It’s said that the eyes are the mirrors of the soul. If so, then look into Kate’s eyes in the last scene, dancing in ball room light, and you’ll see that she, like Geoff’s early lover, has fallen, and that this marriage will forever be frozen in a glacier of its own.

J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor and the author of “Will Work for Food.”


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