Marriage is such a funny thing. It’s damned if you (say you) do, damned if you don’t. Why do couples stay married? And why don’t or can’t they? And what about those who shirk from this seemingly concrete mixer of commitment, dedication, and (at least initial) feelings of love? Director Ira Sachs takes all such characters, and bases his “Married Life” on John Bingham’s novel, “Five Roundabouts To Heaven”.
Set in 1949, “Married Life” is narrated by Richard “Rich” Langley (Pierce Brosnan), and tells the story of his best friend Harry Allen (Chris Cooper) and his wife Pat Allen (Patricia Clarkson), and their marriage. It isn’t as simple as that, though. Harry is having an affair with a much younger Kay Nesbitt (Rachel McAdams) and plans to leave his wife. The only problem is, Harry is too nice to break up his marriage (“nice” and “affair”? Yes, they’re not as dichotomous as they sound) and hurt his wife. Amidst all this, Rich meets Kay and falls for her in an instant, and is convinced that she’s the one who’ll relieve him of his laconic fatalism about marriage.
If all this sounds too melodramatic and overtly dramatic, it’s not. Writing the screenplay along with Oren Moverman, Ira Sachs keeps the movie understated, dignified, and a beautiful display of well-mannered drama with some crisply-humored dialogues. Plus, of course, he’s got his superb cast, who gently nibble at each scene with relish, each actor holding their own without having to hog the limelight or drama. Pierce Brosnan is a casting coup in the role of Rich. He’s perfect as the rake who finds unexpected love in his best friend’s mistress. As he slowly warms up to Kay and seduces her, even as he ruminates what is right and wrong, he does it with such low-key panache, even you appreciate the smoothness with which it is that he sacrifices friendship to the altar of love. This, and the smooth manipulation that he effects, as the only character in the movie who’s in the know of the entire story from all sides – simply seductive. And he sounds so mature and a man of the world as he narrates the story, it’s obvious he’s telling the story as an older and wiser avatar of his character.
The ladies sparkle in their own orbits as well. Rachel McAdams is so obviously fond of Chris Cooper, and wants to take care of him, even as she’s nursing her own personal tragedy, and then finds true passion with Pierce’s character. And her struggle is her own, as she breaks it off and breaks it to Chris Cooper in a beautifully crafted scene. Patricia Clarkson is nothing short of breathlessly believable as Chris Cooper’s wife. She has her own emotional struggles, fond of her husband, but finding love elsewhere and extremely unsure of how to reconcile all of this. But there’s two stars in this movie. One of them is Chris Cooper. As the pivotal character whose actions impact everyone around him, he’s a class act. Every scene he appears, he makes it his own. The scene where Rachel’s character walks into the restaurant while he’s seated with Brosnan – the camera doesn’t show her immediately, but you know it is she – such is the expression in Chris Cooper’s eyes – they fill with palpable fondness and affection. And of course the scene where he walks in on Brosnan and McAdams, even as he’s already set the wheels of his own wife’s murder in motion – Cooper’s eyes slant sideways, not willing to believe his best friend’s betrayal, or look at him, they fill with tears, his voice breaks, and so does your heart. And then later, when he arrives at home, and finally realizes what he wanted, what could have been, and what he’s gotten, staring at the bathroom mirror, tears streaming down his cheeks – Chris Cooper’s such a master.
The other star is composer Dickon Hinchcliffe. To me, “Married Life” has one of the most haunting background scores I’ve ever experienced. There’s a theme, and Hinchcliffe uses it with amazing variations to score in every scene. Again, where Kay walks into the restaurant – the violins rise to greet her, sounding so beautiful, so romantic and simply heavenly. Or the scene where Brosnan drops Rachel McAdams home after their first outing and he sits in the car – Hinchcliffe uses the same theme, but this time, the violins take one piece, while the horns take care of the other to astounding effect. Then there’s swirling, vertigoish violins that fill you with dread in the scene where Cooper replaces the aspirin in the bottle with poison.
Ira Sachs makes a beautiful study in characters in this lovely little movie. And also delivers some amazing lessons in letting tensions simmer, the unspeakables remaining that, and yet conveying what each character is feeling. The scene where Brosnan walks into Pat Allen’s secret is a classic. The discomfiture is understated, unstated, and yet at boiling point, even as Brosnan’s character realizes that what happens next depends on what he does. Director Sachs also tells all married couples that ultimately, people are creatures of habit, and much as your spouse irritates you or makes you want scream “Bloody murder!”, you’d also be surprised how much of a habit they’ve become.
Buy “Married Life” here:
Buy the book, “Five Roundabouts To Heaven” here:
Trailer of “Married Life”:
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