Married Life

Starring Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson, Pierce Brosnan, and Rachel McAdams, Directed by Ira Sachs
Running Time: 90min
Rated: Rated M (mature themes)

Shot in Vancouver, British Columbia, this is a story of a middle-aged man, Harry Allen, who falls in love with a young woman who entices him away from his wife. The story is based on John Bingham's mystery novel, "Five Roundabouts to Heaven, published in 1953.

Thinking that to divorce his wife would be simply too much for her to bear, Harry decides to kill his wife so as to save her the humiliation of it all. With a premise of that kind, one can only view this movie as a dark comedy. It is a movie with many twists and turns, and it places its characters in situations where they inter-weave in darkly comic ways. The film is really a period drama of manners that aims to model itself in part on Alfred Hitchcock's movies in their association of criminal innuendo with sexual mores. But whereas Hitchcock carries off his dark pieces in effortless style, this one flounders a little in the mix of the several moral dilemmas it creates along the way. As a result, it is hard to know whether to smile at its comic twists or respond more seriously to the main homicidal story-line. Do you take the murder plot seriously, or view the film as one that plays lethal games in the style of Alfred Hitchcock? I think the latter; and if that is the case, one can't keep thinking a little nostalgically about the quality of films like "Dial M for Murder' and "Rear Window,' which had rather more compelling homicidal husbands.

The story is told in narrative style by Richard Langley (Pierce Brosnan) who is the best friend of Harry (Chris Cooper), the would-be murder. The role of Harry's wife Pat is played ably by Patricia Clarkson, who has secrets of her own she has been keeping from Harry. The seductress, Kay (Rachel McAdams) who entices Harry away, and who initially returns Harry's waywardness with some passion, eventually two-times Harry for Richard who emerges (not surprisingly) as the suave and experienced sexual victor. But Pat also is two-timing her husband, unbeknown to Harry; and Richard finds out. The overarching theme of all of this is that one can always begin again by building happiness around the unhappiness of others - a difficult message to sell, and one that invites considerable cynicism.

The plot borrows from Hitchcock almost at every turn. The film teases the viewer, frequently moves into melodrama, and is nicely atmospheric of the American good-life of the late 1940s with muted, low-key actions and conversations that provide a certain sense of style. But there is no enigmatic, final twist that makes emotional sense of it all. Basically, one is left with the disturbing moral premise that killing is a kinder and more charitable substitute for loyalty as a means of coping with fading commitment; and good outcomes flow very easily from the unhappiness of others. Set design and costuming are good; the acting for the most part is fine; the direction is strong though erratic; but one never knows in the final run whether or not to take the film's messages seriously. Hitchcock would always have made sure our attention was captured in just the right way, and without that kind of consistent direction the film never quite makes the grade.

This is certainly not a film for everyone and it is not a moral movie at all. However, the film is different and dares to be so, and there are some very distinctive moments that make the film worth a visit for those who enjoy the genre of dark comedy.

Sony Picture Classics Out July 24

Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting

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