|Pierce Brosnan||Richard Langley|
|Chris Cooper||Harry Allen|
|Patricia Clarkson||Pat Allen|
|Rachel McAdams||Kay Nesbitt|
|Annabel Kershaw||Miss Jones|
|Sheila Paterson||Ms. Walsh|
|Directed by||Ira Sachs|
Married Life is the kind of picture that drives critics crazy. Is it a black comedy? A melodrama? Is it a film noir? Is it Hitchcock redux? Just when you think you’ve got it pegged and are relaxing into the comfort level of a well-worn genre, it slips away and morphs into something else. And since critics are nothing more than audiences with column inches at their disposal, this game of genre infidelity may cut a swath of dissatisfaction through the movie-going public as well.
But if one is disposed to tolerance, there are satisfying rewards in writer/director Ira Sachs’s adaptation (co-written by Oren Moverman) of an old British novel, Five Roundabouts to Heaven by John Bingham. Bingham, by the way, was John Le Carré’s mentor and boss in MI5, the British spy agency, and according to Le Carré was the model for George Smiley, the enigmatic spy chief of such novels as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and The Honourable Schoolboy.
In this movie, Harry Allen (Chris Cooper) has a problem. He’s married. But, he tells his best friend, the commitment-averse bachelor lothario Rich Langley (Pierce Brosnan, who also serves as narrator), he has fallen in love, truly in love, with a war widow (Rachel McAdams) about half his age. Harry plans to leave his wife of many years for her.
“Why?” Rich asks.
“Because I want to be truly happy.”
“That doesn’t sound unreasonable,” Rich murmurs, although he clearly doesn’t see how a woman, any woman, can bring such a condition about. That all changes when he meets Kay.
She enters a room like Lana Turner, platinum blonde and fetchingly demure in a sweater set, bathed in the romantic glow of the kind of lighting cinematographers like Robert Surtees used to wrap around stars of the ‘40s, in the post-war era when this story is set. Rich is instantly smitten, and loyalty to his lifelong friend drains away like the martinis they down over lunch.
Loyalty is a complicated virtue in this story. Everybody betrays everybody else, and yet they all feel keenly the compelling bonds of friendship, love, and responsibility. Harry’s wife Pat (Patricia Clarkson) approvingly defines love as “Sex. The rest is companionship.” Rich consoles his friend, saying “We all have to put up with something in life, Harry,” but Harry’s a romantic, and he wants more than just sex and companionship from a relationship.
The problem is getting rid of Pat. Harry is too fond of his wife to hurt her. So he does what any thoughtful, considerate husband would do. He decides to kill her, to spare her the heartbreak of divorce from him.
It’s a high concept, somewhat along the lines of the American officer in Vietnam who declared that "It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.” The idea dawns on Harry one rainy night when he picks up a hitch-hiker who has just come from his sister’s deathbed. “It was a blessed release,” the man tells Harry, and you can see the wheels clicking into place in Harry’s brain.
The device of the hitch-hiker may in itself by a slyly punning tip of the hat to Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense, to whose classic mid-‘50s television show this movie owes its most recognizable stylistic debt. Like Hitch, Sachs combines humor, suspense, and twists of plot that keep the ground shifting under our feet.
With a cast like this, it would be difficult to go wrong. Brosnan, more than any Bond actor since Sean Connery, has managed to resurrect his image after his estate-planning stint as 007, and has launched an enviable career as a fine actor in films like The Tailor of Panama and The Matador. As the raffish Rich, he wears a knowing, cynical look that is capable of conscience, but doesn’t make a fetish of it. McAdams holds her own with her older costars, letting us see the complexity of motives, feelings, and awareness in this young widow who must play the games of dependency that the era required of women. Cooper is squarely stolid, inhabiting the boxy overcoats and hats of the period as if they are growing on him, and bringing out the enhanced, solicitous tenderness a man feels toward his wife when he is cheating on her (or planning to kill her for her own good). And in a gathering of equals, there is often one who shines with special brightness, and here that is Clarkson, who always seems to find unexpected dimensions in her characters.
Sachs, whose Forty Shades of Blue won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2005, works with production designer Hugo Luczyk-Wyhowski to recreate in loving detail the post-war atmosphere of New York and its suburbs, and we’re transported back to the mood of pictures like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice. The dialogue here crackles with movie sexuality:
Rich: “Can I have that cigarette you’re smoking?”
Rich: “Because it’s touched your lips.”
The mantra of Married Life, repeated several times by different characters, is that “you can’t build happiness on the unhappiness of someone else.” But you can build a sharp, stylish movie on such stuff as that, even if its shifting stylistic terrain sometimes drives you a little crazy.
© Text 2008 Jonathan Richards - Filmfreak.be