Director Ira Sachs begins Married Life with a frothy animated opening-credits sequence set to Doris Day singing “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.” We’re cued to relax, travel back to a simpler time, but of course relationships in the ’50s (1949, to be exact) were no simpler than they are today, and Chris Cooper’s dour expression in the opening shot confirms this.
Seen from outside an office window, the reflection of buildings partly obscuring his face, Cooper appears neither in nor out, a cinematic illusion appropriate to his character’s mid-life dilemma. Cooper’s Harry, a mild-mannered businessman, is anything but happy, as he soon tells his bachelor friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan) over lunch, or at least not with his marriage. He loves his wife, of course, but he’s in love with a younger woman. When Kay (Rachel McAdams) walks into the restaurant, accompanied by a swell in the lush, intoxicating score, Richard sees why. Svelte in a green cocktail dress, her platinum hair twisted in a French-knot, McAdams gleams, as she’s meant to, like Kim Novak in Vertigo. When she finds Harry in the crowd, her smile lights the room and Richard’s ambition. He doesn’t need Harry’s encouragement to visit the young war widow and assuage her loneliness. Meanwhile, Harry determines to spare his wife, Pat, the sorrow and humiliation of divorce by putting her out of her future misery.
Sachs infuses this beautifully acted melodrama, which he co-wrote with Oren Moverman, based on John Bingham’s novel Five Roundabouts to Heaven, with plenty of humor, but the laughs never come at the characters’ expense. On the contrary, the comedy underscores the characters’ individuality. Some of the lightness of tone derives from Richard’s suave voice-over narration. He’s guiding us through a tale whose ending he already knows. “Did I sense a breath of hesitation?” he inquires of us, after asking Kay if she’s in love with Harry. We’re his confidants, and even when we’re apt to judge him, we’re on his side, seeing the story mostly through his eyes. But then we’re with all the flawed but complex characters, especially the endangered Pat, given vivid, sexy life by the wonderful Patricia Clarkson. But also Kay, a dreamy girl-next-door, or perhaps a femme fatale. And even Harry, with his demented blindness. Cooper gives another indelible performance as a suffering innocent with devilish intent.
Reminiscent of Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven in its period fidelity (the costumes, make-up, hair styles and sets are just right) as well as in its transcendence of genre, Married Life presents a similarly fascinating juxtaposition between its subject and time. Beneath the obligatory hats and mid-20th-century American manners, couples did what couples do: love, lust and struggle to be happy. But the way the best contemporary directors tell these stories, with greater honesty and less sentimentality, makes them new and timeless. Sachs turns the table on genre clichés. For Pat, love is sex. It’s Harry “who depends on emotions for happiness.” Among the film’s great pleasures is discovering how little we know about the characters, as the characters discover how little they know about one another and themselves. As Richard says at the film’s conclusion, “Whoever in this room knows what goes on in the mind of the person sleeping next to you, raise your hand.”