Reviewed by Tim Grierson
Though its title suggests a definitive look at the travails and joys of marriage, Married Life is actually an intimate look at just one married couples relationship in all its uncertainty. Directed by Ira Sachs–responsible for the 2005 Sundance Grand Jury winner Forty Shades of Blue–Married Life (adapted from John Binghams novel Five Roundabouts to Heaven) suffers due to an iffy performance from a key supporting player, but Chris Cooper and Patricia Clarkson do fine work as the long-married couple at the center of the story.
Set in the 1940s, Married Life is concerned with Harry Allen (Cooper), a pillar of his community and married to Pat (Clarkson) for many years. But Harrys perfect life is starting to reveal some blemishes: Hes been having an affair with the much-younger Kay (Rachel McAdams) with whom hes in love. But because of a sense of devotion to his wife and fearful that her discovery of his infidelity will devastate her Harry decides that the only humane thing to do is to kill Pat.
Married Life is narrated by Harrys best friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan), a debonair ladies man who knows about Harrys affair but has no idea about his pals murderous plans. Once he meets Kay, though, Richard starts plotting a way to steal her away for himself.
Co-written by Oren Moverman (who also co-wrote last years Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan anti-biopic Im Not There), Married Life is a contemplative examination of marriage, social mores, and personal ethics. While the film doesnt entirely hold together, its individual pieces prove absorbing enough that its less-inspired moments dont mortally wound the project.
Unlike, for example, Todd Haynes Far From Heaven, which harshly criticized the suffocating conservatism of postwar America, Sachs Married Life is gentler in its satire, painting a culture where the veneer of decent, honest living conceals the buried disappointments of unfulfilled adult lives. Clarkson played a one-note bitchy housewife in Far From Heaven, but her nuanced character in Married Life gives her more emotional territory to cover. As Pat, the dutiful wife unaware of her fate, Clarkson doesnt simplify her so that shes an easily sympathetic figure. Since there are several plot twists that shouldnt be revealed, let it be said that Pat is hardly an innocent herself, and Clarkson is terrific in painting her as both loving and devoted while also offering glimpses of her hidden fire.
Sachs is less interested in exposing the hypocrisy of the era than he is in humanizing the periods conservative stereotypes, and Clarkson is a valuable ally in this process: As with just about every role she plays, she simultaneously conveys wistfulness, intelligence, and a grownup sensuality, embodying defeat and integrity in equal measure.
Clarkson is matched by Cooper. In films ranging from American Beauty to last years underrated Breach, Cooper has shown facility in playing seemingly grounded individuals who are secretly on the verge of mental collapse. The push-pull tension of Harrys sense of decency versus his sexual urges is wonderfully rendered in small moments by Cooper: Harry is so outwardly honorable that only slowly does it become apparent what a soulless wretch he really is.
The rapport of these two actors provides the films emotional foundation. Part of the credit must also go to Sachs and Movermans script, but Cooper and Clarkson deftly handle a tricky character relationship: the long-married couple. Falling in love is relatively easy, but to capture the layers of heartbreak, passion, contentment and complacency that result from a lifelong relationship requires sensitive portrayals. Thankfully, Cooper and Clarkson are more than up to the task. In their interplay, you get the sense of two people who have fallen into a tolerable rut still loving but mostly coasting along until Harry decides to off her.
Fortunately, their relationship is nicely shaded as Harry and Kays adulterous affair is consistently problematic. Rachel McAdams has shined as the adorable love interest in Wedding Crashers and the tart sister in The Family Stone, but as Kay, the woman who will entice both Harry and Richard, she seems frustratingly lightweight, unable to project the necessary seductive qualities.
Moreover, McAdams and Cooper have little charisma, which makes it difficult to believe their relationship–or that someone as dull as Kay would inspire Harry to kill his wife and run away with her.
Continuing to find interesting film projects in his post-James Bond career, Brosnan is solid as the slick-talking Richard who, like Harry, is torn between his honor and his desires, unsure ultimately whose feelings he should be considering: his or Harrys.
Married Life is least interesting when it tries to glean drama from Harrys uncertainty about his affair. In this regard, the film is no different than many other melodramas about wayward husbands. But Ira Sachs finds more fertile ground once Harry puts his plan into motion, balancing his guilt with his ability to execute his objective. Sachs creates a nicely understated emotional tone throughout that sometimes can be too muted for its own good, but as Harry gets closer to carrying out the murder and a few well-turned twists arise, the restrained style anchors the proceedings so that nothing that occurs lacks credibility. In addition, the films expected conclusion turns out to open the door to a surprising series of final moments that are significantly poignant, underlining the storys themes of public morality and personal desires. The film fluctuates between drama, suspense and dark comedy but, then again, so do the best of marriages.
Running time: 90 minutes
Director: Ira Sachs
Production companies: MGM Pictures, Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, Anonymous Content, Firm Films
US distribution: Sony Pictures Classics
Producers: Sidney Kimmel, Jawal Nga, Steve Golin, Ira Sachs
Executive producers: William Horberg, David Nicksay, Geoff Stier, Adam Shulman, Matt Littin, Alix Madigan-Yorkin, Bruce Toll
Screenplay: Ira Sachs, Oren Moverma (based on the book Five Roundabouts to Heaven by John Bingham)
Cinematography: Peter Deming
Editor: Affonso Goncalves
Production design: Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Harry Allen (Chris Cooper)
Richard Langley (Pierce Brosnan)
Pat Allen (Patricia Clarkson)
Kay Nesbitt (Rachel McAdams)