The late ’40s and ’50s have become such pop culture shorthand for emotional repression and immaculately groomed exteriors that it takes a while to realize Ira Sachs‘ "Married Life" isn’t just another parable of how darkness can be found even in the buttoned-up hearts of postwar Connecticut and Westchester County. The film is narrated by an arch Pierce Brosnan, whose character, Richard, is a cheery bachelor who learns that his staid friend Harry (Chris Cooper) has been having an affair with a younger woman, Kay (Rachel McAdams, the film’s one weak link). Harry wants to leave his wife, Pat (Patricia Clarkson), but is still fond of her and can’t bear the thought of the hurt and humiliation that a divorce would bring her, and so conceives of an incredibly sad murder plot he thinks of in terms akin to putting a beloved dog to sleep.
"Married Life" isn’t set in actual period America, it’s set in movie period America, where women wear full make-up and an updo to just hang around the house, where a night out on the town is a montage of dining, dancing, and a giddy drive home that might as well take place along a rear-projected road. The characters at first seem just as stylized: Pat is the sensible, passionless matron; Kay is the impeccable blond who enters the film like a trouble-lugging Hitchcock heroine; Harry the cold fish ready to risk everything on an unexpected obsession. But then the film turns these impressions on their heads again and again, revealing new facets to each character and taking unexpected directions until "Married Life" emerges not as another winking exercise in genre stylings but as a believable and darkly funny account of a time in the lives of four people, though one filtered through Richard’s slicked-over storytelling. It’s deceptively fine work from Sachs, whose last film was the subdued indie drama "Forty Shades of Blue," and who here finds a way to both revel in vintage trappings and implode all of their cinematic associations, leaving behind a gently human story about how anyone’s heart can contain… not darkness, necessarily, but unknowable depths.
"Married Life" screened September 29 and 30, and will open February 22, 2008 in limited release from Sony Pictures Classics.