‘45 Years’ explores the rocky road of longtime marriage

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Two Oscar-nominated films are playing at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center starting this weekend. “45 Years” is a British film that couldn’t be more different from Hollywood’s highly praised action films like “The Revenant.” “Theeb” is an action film of an entirely different kind, set in Bedouin country during World War I.

‘45 Years’

Charlotte Rampling earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her role as Kate Mercer in “45 Years.” Kate and her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) lead a quiet life in the Norfolk countryside, where they have retired. Kate is solicitous of her partner, fixing him tea and chatting supportively, in the tradition of women who came of age in the ’60s. The couple is about to celebrate their 45th anniversary, an event that Kate is arranging. Then a letter written in German arrives and threatens to upend their settled relationship.

Geoff learns from the letter that Katya, the youthful lover he lost in a 1962 hiking accident, has been found. The letter asks him to identify Katya’s body, which was found in a melting Swiss glacier. Although they were not married, he and Katya traveled as if they were, with Geoff serving as next of kin. All this happened long before he met Kate.

In the midst of the anniversary preparations, Geoff disappears into reveries of an idyllic and tragic love affair, shutting out his wife. Director Andrew Haigh builds up the Mercers’ dilemma in detail after detail marked by a characteristic English restraint. Geoff looks for a German dictionary to help him translate the letter and climbs into the attic searching for photos of Katya. In what may be the only time Kate raises her voice, she demands that Geoff show her the photos of Katya. Later, after friends regale them with pictures of grandchildren, they discuss how few photos they have from their own childless life. Geoff begins to leaf through a book on climate change.

During one trip into town, Kate stops at a travel agency and learns that Geoff has inquired about travel to Switzerland. In the meantime, he takes up smoking, and slowly begins to share reminiscences about the six or seven idyllic weeks he spent traveling with Katya on their way to the Italian border.

Music from the past — “Stagger Lee,” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” — weaves in and out of the narrative. Quietly subtle, this film is enriched by two actors with long and successful histories in classic films, from Rampling’s “Georgy Girl” and “Stardust Memories” to Courtenay’s “Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” and “Dr. Zhivago.”

‘Theeb’

Director Naji Abu Nowar’s debut film is a Western that won an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. Jordan provides the stand-in for the dramatically beautiful Arabian countryside at a time when Arabs were rebelling against the Ottoman Empire. As part of a Bedouin tribe of pilgrim guides, Theeb (Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat), the orphaned boy of the title, lives in the desert with his two brothers.

When Edward, a British officer, shows up with his Arab translator, he asks Theeb’s brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen) to guide him to a waterhole. Since the film leaves many details unspoken, some background is in order. Edward is en route to meet his regiment near the Iron Donkey Trail, a railroad line they hope to blow up in their fight against the Ottoman Turks. Hussein agrees to guide them, and Theeb, whose name means wolf, chases after the camel-riding men, even though he’s been told not to come. Before long, outlaws attack, and Theeb is left to survive on his own. In the events that follow, Theeb comes of age.

Immersing the viewer in traditional Bedouin culture, “Theeb” does not provide many narrative signposts along the way. But despite that fact, this evocative tale captures a fascinating and exotic world, one that will intrigue the viewer.

For screening times and tickets, visit mvfilmsociety.com, or go to MVTimes event listings.