Married Life is a Douglas Sirkish melodrama with noir overtones. Based on the John Bingham novel Five Roundabouts to Heaven, it’s the story of a married man who has fallen in love with another [younger] woman, but won’t leave his wife because he’s afraid it would destroy her life. Rather than divorce her, he therefore resolves to murder her – humanely – to save her from the pain it would cause her.
Harry Allen [Chris Cooper] is the kind of guy who herds bees out open windows and picks up spiders on a bit of paper before carrying them outside. He’d sooner die than cause anyone pain. Although married to the vivacious Pat [Patricia Clarkson], he has fallen in love with the much younger, blonde, dimpled Kay [Rachel McAdams].
He confides in his best friend, Richard Langley [Pierce Brosnan] from whose point of view we see the story unfold. Richard is a cad – a self-admitted one, to boot – who loves ‘em and leaves ‘em… until Harry introduces him to the lovely Kay. Taking Harry’s suggestion that he get to know Kay, he begins working on wooing her away from his friend.
Director Ira Sachs co-wrote the script with Oren Moverman and if books are usually better than their movie adaptations, then this is a book I have to read! As the film progresses, we are given small revelations that build to a conclusion that is oddly happy and yet, not in any Hollywood sense.
Like Sirk’s melodramas, Married Life is an examination of relationships – though the film is not primarily about the subjects from a female perspective. Also like Sirk’s melodramas, the film is shot in a very unusually vivid way – though the bright colors are mostly used for the female characters instead of the settings [with one or two exceptions, like the restaurant where Harry introduces Richard to Kay – and the Allen home in the final sequences].
There is a comic irony to way the film’s various relationships play out, that is also very Sirkian. The noir elements aren’t the obvious ones [Venetian blinds, Dutch angles and so forth]. Instead, the use of almost silkily menacing jazz, in places, underscores Harry’s intentions and preparations – giving the feel of classic noir. There is also irony in the use of both late 40’s pop in balance with the jazzier elements.
The film, like its score, seduces us into thinking one way while the film is headed another. The key is contained in a brief bit of conversation that that pops up three times – twice from Richard, in radically different situations, and by Kay in an unexpected one. Finally, the four main characters come to moments of epiphany – though almost none of them are what one would expect after the first act.
Married Life is something of a gem. Cooper and Clarkson almost never give anything less than brilliant performances and are in fine form here. Brosnan continues to tackle different genres and character types successfully with Richard Langley. Langley, the womanizer who finds himself suddenly wanting something more, is an oddly affecting character and we can feel sympathy for him as much as for the far more sensitive and caring Harry.
Rachel McAdams also continues to add to her growing reputation as an actor who can handle a variety of types. Kay is a genuinely good person who, like Harry, hates to hurt anyone or anything. When faced with the thought that, by winning Harry’s heart, she might be hurting someone who doesn’t deserve it, McAdams makes us believe her subsequent actions.
There is a silkily elegant feel to Sachs’ direction. The use of color to signal mood changes is even more subtle than the score, and Sachs frames his characters in ways that draw us into their moral dilemmas. By the end of the film, with its appropriately ironic elements, we still care about all the characters – an achievement.
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