Tuesday, October 1, 2013

RETRO REVIEW: CHEAPER THAN THERAPY - "Married Life" Offers a More Adult View of Marital Affairs

Ira Sachs’ film Married Life (2007), based on the novel by John Bingham, is aptly named.  Much like the institution that informs its subject, the film carries certain expectations going in but reveals something wholly unexpected beneath its facade. 
Set some time in the 1940s in an unnamed city, the film centers on “Harry Allen” (Chris Cooper), a man living through a very routine marriage to his wife, “Pat” (Patricia Clarkson) while being enamored with his beautiful mistress, “Kay” (the ethereal Rachel McAdams).  He wants out of his banal marriage but cannot bring himself to ask for a divorce for fear of the social and psychological consequences to Pat.  So, in order to spare her the pain and embarrassment of divorce, he “logically” decides to kill her. To complicate matters, he confesses his intent to his best friend, the rakishly debonair “Richard Langley” (Pierce Brosnan), an unrepentant womanizer who eventually falls for Kay as well.
The plot smacks of David Lynch-ian sensibilities and could have easily fallen into melodramatic “whodunit” territory.  Surprisingly, Sachs and co-screenwriter Oren Moverman avoid the temptation to do so.  Rather, Sach’s film is an exploration of the mores and hypocrisies found within relationships both in and out of wedlock, and presents same with refreshing honesty and maturity that, for the most part, succeeds.
This film could not be done in the present day, for many of the plot twists (of which there are a few), could easily be unraveled with a cell phone or a laptop computer.  The decision to use post-war America is also practical as it presents marital infidelity during a time when it was considered scandalous taboo.  The music by Dickon Hinchliffe is nondescriptly melodious and acts as a perfect reflection to the subject matter.  Peter Derning’s cinematography, which presents a combination of Art Deco and film noir sensibilities, creates a stylistic confluence evocative of both yet adhering to neither.
The strength of this film lies in the characters.  Chris Cooper is quietly engaging as the middle-aged Allen, a complex man to whom killing does not come easy.  Cooper, who is perhaps best remembered as the head of Treadstone in The Bourne Identity, manages with a look to convey the conflicting, rumbling emotions that his milquetoast exterior belies.  Patricia Clarkson is a revelation in her portrayal of Pat, a woman who may not be as fragile as everyone assumes her to be.  As the mistress/divorcee, Rachel McAdams radiates a physical beauty evocative of Veronica Lake.  Unfortunately, of all the characters, hers is the most two-dimensional.  She is more ethereal muse than flesh-and-blood person to the two male leads, inspiring them to consider avenues of thought they hadn’t before.  As to the other male lead, why is it that Pierce Brosnan seems to be closer to the literary James Bond post-Bond than he was ever allowed to be in his tenure as the cinematic super-spy?  As in his turns in The Fourth Protocol, The Tailor of Panama and most recently the critically-acclaimed The Matador, Brosnan infuses his character with a rapscallion flair and rapier wit.  Yet despite his betrayal of Allen’s friendship, he infuses Langley with charmingly disarming sensitivity and depth.  It is perhaps Brosnan’s most nuanced performance to date, and it is a superb turn.
This film will probably not be at the box office long because it is a film that does not follow standard formulaic clichés, nor is it filled with moments of exaggerated action or pathos.  Like the lives it depicts, the film is a quiet affair (pun intended) which presents its conflicts and resolutions (or lack thereof) in a human and adult manner.  Sachs’ purpose in this film is to show that a married life is not a fairy tale that ends “happily ever after” or that passion overrules all, but that true love and affection take time to build.  Every frame shot, every character interaction, shows that this film is a product of that which makes a good marriage:  A labor of love.