Richard Langley (Pierce Brosnan) tells us the story of his great friend, Harry (Chris Cooper). Harry, a successful businessman in New York, circa 1949, has a loving, even doting wife, Pat (Patricia Clarkson). But he has fallen in love with a beautiful young widow, Kay (Rachel McAdams, “Red Eye”, “Wedding Crashers“, “The Notebook”). Rather than put his wife through the humiliation of a divorce, of leaving her, he decides to poison her. Then, a free man, he can move on and marry Kay. But Harry makes one mistake; he introduces Kay to his great friend, Richard, a lothario like no other, and he is also attracted to Kay.
Directed and co-written by Ira Sachs, “Married Life” is a very believable look at the way people lived in the late 40s. The attention to detail is astonishing; clothing, furniture, cars all appear authentic. In one scene, they visit a movie theater and watch a lesser known Ava Gardner film. It’s a nice touch. So often in films set in the past, they go to the theater to see “The Wizard of Oz”, “Casablanca” or “Citizen Kane”. Sure, these are extremely memorable films, but they weren’t the only three films made pre 1960.
The four leads are all very good, all very believable. Pierce Brosnan’s Richard narrates the film, introducing us to the characters, to the story and guides us throughout. He speaks in a softly modulated tone, giving the film the feeling of a fable or a fairy tale. His voice, complete with Irish accent, lulls us into the story, slowly helping us get acclimated to this world. Richard is a cad, but he is a bachelor, so we can’t hate him too much when we learn he sleeps around. By the time we realize he is going to try to seduce Kay away from his good friend, Harry, his behavior has become well enough established that we would be disappointed if he didn’t try to sleep with the young woman.
Chris Cooper is great as Harry; there are a lot of layers to his character and they are revealed in subtle ways, giving us a great look at his character. Why would Harry think it is more desirable to kill his wife than to divorce her? In his own twisted way, this shows the depth of care he has for her. They have been together for so long, they know each other so well, and he can’t fathom the thought of divorcing her. But he also realizes he doesn’t love Pat anymore. His passion lies with Kay and he has had a life so devoid of passion for so long, he simply can’t let it happen any longer. He needs passion, he needs Kay.
Harry clearly recognizes he has limited resources for making this happen. It has to be something that looks like an accident, or natural. He could never shoot her, or use a knife, too messy and too many bad consequences. So he decides to put poison in her medicine; Pat suffers from ulcers and heart burn so she always has a blue bottle around. As Harry sets about the task at hand, the story takes on decidedly Hitchcockian overtones. Much like “Suspicion” and “Notorious”, we know more than some of the characters and this creates an additional level of suspense. Add the tongue in cheek element, and the film becomes more like Hitchcock’s “The Trouble with Harry” or “Family Plot”. At one point, Harry, thinking he has made a terrible mistake, races home to prevent Pat from taking an additional dose of the poison. The film presents all of these elements well, blending them deftly and creating a nice homage to these films, and this era. Cooper is also able to portray the various emotions Harry experiences, sometimes on the turn of a dime, making his character complex and believable.
Patricia Clarkson is perhaps the perfect type to play a housewife from the late forties; she just looks like she fits into this different era and might have walked out of a Norman Rockwell painting. She is also the perfect compliment to Cooper, matching his acting style to a tee. They are both very low key, very natural, and seem to be a real couple.
It is also interesting to watch Clarkson play this character as she has to walk a fine line. One the one hand, we know she is being poisoned, know she is essentially a victim, but she maintains a sunny disposition and manages to make the character seem interesting and viable, and not the least bit pathetic. Basically, she makes a character that seems very simple, someone we have figured out, and still manages to surprise us. The fact that she knows Harry doesn’t love her anymore, she states as much, and stays in the relationship, provides an example of her dedication. Too bad she isn’t as aware of what her husband is up to.
Rachel McAdams has been off screen for a couple of years and her portrayal of Kay only serves to make this absence all the more noticeable. Much like Clarkson, McAdams takes a character that we probably have ‘figured out’ from the first moment we see her, and makes us feel differently about the woman. Yes, she is an adulterer, but as we get to know her, we realize there is a lot more to her. Her character becomes flesh and blood to us and we learn she is a real human being. This is Sach’s best contribution to the story and the characters; details. We learn a lot about each person through observation, comments, actions.
It becomes a little more problematic when she starts to fall for Rich. She is already an adulterer and now she is cheating on the man who is cheating on his wife. But McAdams is able to convey this conflict well, giving us real insight into her character, making us appreciate this decision as well.
It sure seems like I liked “Married Life” and I did like many things about it. Perhaps if people weren’t so intent on talking about the ‘dark comedy’ aspect of it, I would be more appreciative. It is a very good drama, but the comedy, dark or otherwise, is almost non-existent. Even the moment when Harry rushes home to prevent Pat from taking a dose of the medicine is played more for suspense - I suspect Sachs intended this to be a humorous moment. So, “Married Life” isn’t funny, except for the occasional mildly amusing moment. In a black comedy, I expect some outright laughs, more amusing moments, and these don’t happen.
“Married Life” is a good film, but it needs a divorce from the plugs it has been getting from the cast in recent interviews and press. Actually a divorce might just be too humiliating. These untrue rumors should probably be put to rest.