Married Life

Joseph Lederer/Sony Pictures Classics
Ira Sachs/United States-Canada 2008

Married Life reveals that playing pretend is not a game for children alone, but rather an artifice that finds its fullest expression in adulthood. The film is a story of marital discord hidden behind the placid, artificial exterior of a lifetime’s worth of practice making perfect. Pretty but emotionally inert, Married Life mirrors its protagonist’s mental state a bit too slavishly.

Chris Cooper is Harry, a middle-aged man enmeshed in an unhappy marriage and looking for true love in the arms of another, younger woman. But Harry is not your stereotypical adulterer. Paradoxically enough, he’s a romantic who prefers companionship and emotional connection over sex, something his libidinous but emotionally distant wife Pat (Patricia Clarkson) cannot give him.

Harry is passionately in love with the beautiful war widow Kay (Rachel McAdams) and wants more than anything to be with her. But the sensitive Harry is also unwilling to inflict the sort of pain and humiliation on Pat that a divorce would necessitate. He sees only one option – He must poison his wife. Harry’s scheme goes horribly awry, however, when his best friend, Richard (Pierce Brosnan), also falls for Kay and sets in motion a cunning plan all his own to possess her.

Cooper, surely one of the most impeccable actors working today, is perfect as the unhappy Harry. Clarkson is every bit as flawless as his wife, a woman with a secret or two of her own. The achingly beautiful McAdams, who has been absent from the screen for a few years, is the perfect foil for them both. Only Brosnan stands out, ever so slightly miscast, as Harry’s unfaithful friend. While Brosnan’s suave charms are unimpeachable, his European airs color his character with an aristocratic veneer that doesn’t quite work.

Part film noir, part black comedy, Married Life wouldn’t work nearly as well as a contemporary drama. Set in the 1940s shortly after the close of the second World War, the film draws its strength from a tradition-bound world that stifles women and allows men to use their business as unquestioned camouflage for hanky-panky. It is only by setting the action within such clearly delineated gender roles that the film veers near its intended target.

Director Ira Sach has created an undeniably attractive but lifeless film that looks like a tale of murderous deception on the outside but pulses with a commentary on marriage at its core. Married Life reveals matrimony as a sham, a thing play-acted for both spouses and an audience of similarly performing friends.

The film attempts to examine the oft-overlooked differences between “love” and being “in love.” Are emotions an appropriate barometer of martial happiness, or is there something deeper and less fickle that binds one soul to another? Is it possible to create happiness without simultaneously wounding another or is all happiness built upon the unhappiness of others? Could it be that gazing too long at the green grass on the other side of the fence distracts us from the things of unyielding value we already possess?

The film draws its own conclusions to these questions, but don’t buy them for a moment. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The film too is capable of play-acting for its audience.

© 2008 Brandon Fibbs. All rights reserved.

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