As one character notes in “Married Life,” it’s hard to be a good wife. As the film based on John Bingham’s “Five Roundabouts to Heaven” also details, it’s not any easier to be a good husband.
Put yet another way, consider the observation by Richard Langley, the occasional narrator and player within this film-noir styled melodrama: “Can you know what’s in the mind of the person who sleeps next to you”?
It’s Sept. 5, 1949, when Langley (Pierce Brosnan) learns that his friend Harry Allen is having an affair with Kay Nesbit, a platinum-blond widow played by Rachel McAdams. Harry, played by Chris Cooper, needs an alibi for his frequent dalliances, and Richard is content to oblige; so satisfied is he to play the dissimulator that he has this insatiable urge to pay frequent visits to the lonely widow when Harry is with his wife, Pat, portrayed by Patricia Clarkson.
“When it comes to sex, most men are selfish; I wanted Harry’s girl,” says Langley.
Harry, already a grandfather, may not love his wife with as much passion as he adores Kay, but he feels for her so dearly that he cannot bear to see her suffer. Out of compassion for her inevitable torment, he plans to kill her; it will be a merciful exit, and to test out the poison, which he purchases in another name, he spreads some death dust in his dog’s food.
This is not all to “Married Life,” which has elements of a black comedy. But for the most part, it is both a melodrama and a philosophic meditation on infidelity, together with the inevitable disillusionment that attends the marital relationship. Yes, there are more lines intersecting the lives of the above-mentioned characters.
Director Ira Sachs, who also co-wrote the screenplay, is not out to create a splash of sensation; rather, he lets events unfold with deliberate restraint.
As but one example of the approach, Langley notes early on that he has enough information to put an end to the duplicities, perhaps easing the consciences of all involved. As he confesses, “I was tempted by sentimentality, armed with the knowledge to set everyone free.” But with more than an eye on his friend’s paramour, he enters the ring of intrigue, at first playing the confidant of Kay, who tells Langley that “the trouble with Harry is that he is a man who depends on his emotions for happiness.”
“Married Life” does not serve up sensational or melodramatic climaxes, even if near the end of the narrative one character races home, only to be pulled over the cops. But as it flirts with danger, it gives us time to contemplate the precarious nature of most relationships, the effect of an affair on conscience (“You cannot build happiness on the misfortune of others”), and the secret thoughts whirling and whizzing through the minds of all wounded by Cupid’s arrow.
One cannot watch “Married Life” without being reminded of a Hitchcock thriller such as “Strangers on the Train.” But here the effects are more somber, more muted. Like the acting, the movie is creditable and restrained. It is less a thriller than a sober meditation on the roots of marital discontent and infidelity.
DIRECTED BY Ira Sachs
SCREENPLAY BY Ira Sachs and Oren Moverman, based on “Five Roundabouts to Heaven” by John Bingham
STARRING Chris Cooper, Pierce Brosnan, Patricia Clarkson, Rachel McAdams and David Richard-Peck
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes