“This is my friend Harry Allen. He’s married. He likes his wife. It can happen.”
Harry (Chris Cooper) appears to be the very model of success in 1949 America: a corporate office, a long, healthy marriage to a practical (and well preserved) woman (Patricia Clarkson), a nice home, and a gorgeous mistress (Rachel McAdams as a platinum blond).
But Harry wants to be “truly happy,” he explains to his best friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan, our sardonic narrator). In the course of pursuing his happiness, it becomes clear to him that he must murder his wife. Not for money or spite, mind you. Harry loves Pat too much to put her through the pain of a divorce. How thoughtful.
The plot of Married Life, based on the British fifties-era pulp thriller “Five Roundabouts to Heaven” and set in 1949 Seattle (though the city is never actually identified, to the best of my recall), sounds like a seedy Hollywood B&W crime melodrama of cheating husbands and seductive sirens and the comforts of suburban life corrupted by lust and greed. Director Ira Sachs, who shoots the film in cool sepia tones that evoke the period and suggest lives lived in restraint and self-suppression, as if bold colors would shock them out of their comfort zone, plays it as a gentle comedy of manners. Or perhaps comedy is a misleading label. Call it an irony.
Chris Cooper plays Harry as a man desperate to find the passion that has slipping from his comfortable marriage, not a villain but a man trapped in disappointment and frustration. Clarkson’s Pat is more companion than lover to Harry, but under her decidedly pragmatic view on romance (“Love is sex. The rest is affection and companionship,” she proclaims early in the film) is a woman just as hungry for it. McAdams is made up in bombshell mode but is no femme fatale, despite her predilection for vibrant colors. She carries the part with dignity and poise and an undercurrent of sadness.
It’s all quite deftly played with a maturity and introspection that may take you by surprise, though Sachs is perhaps too restrained in parts. Scenes of potentially unreserved passion become bloodless debates, but that debate also is the film’s strength.
“Married Life” begins as a social satire but shifts into a provocative conversation about our definitions and expectations of happiness in love and marriage, and challenges us to draw our own conclusions about what makes a happy ending.
Read my review in the Seattle P-I here.
I interview director Ira Sachs for the Seattle P-I here.
Snow Angels, David Gordon Green’s evocative drama of failing relationships and the damage left in their wake, opens on a scene of comic innocence. An exasperated band teacher (a hilariously perturbed Tom Noonan) stops a high school marching band from performing a crime against harmony in their disastrous rehearsal of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” “Do you have a sledgehammer in your heart?” he pleads, hoping to inspire them to greatness, or at least betterness. “I have a sledgehammer in my heart!” It’s lighthearted and playful and the glances between the giddy trombone player (Michael Angarano) and a smiling redhead with a camera (Olivia Thirlby) sets the tone for puppy love. And then we hear gunshots. No, it’s not a drama about high school violence, as the film shows when it rewinds three weeks to play out the story that brings us to the gunshots.
The rhythms and cultural dynamics of the rural South defined Green’s earlier films (most recognizably, he was the writer of “All the Real Girls”). He feels his way through a different set of textures for this Northeastern setting and they are just as evocative and lived in. As the autumn turns to winter and snow blankets the landscape, we wait for his unsettling mood of hushed tension to crack.
Read the review here.