It's hard to ignore a good noir movie--or even a color film that combines period elements from the late Forties with a limited use of the shadow-play that viewers have come to associate with those heavily atmospheric films. That's why the first thing that grabs your attention when you begin watching "Married Life" is the look of it, which has you wondering whether it's late Forties or early Fifties. But it reeks of period, and it's not just the clothing or deliberate use of texture. Director Ira Sachs ("Forty Shades of Blue") has done his homework, using longer shots and the kind of angles we often saw in those old noir thrillers.
But it all starts with the script, and Sachs and Oren Moverman have produced a tightly constructed screenplay with dialogue that does everything that it supposed to do: advance the plot, create or maintain tension, reveal character, and hint at what's not being said. Well-written films are as much fun for actors as they are for audiences, and the featured foursome of Pierce Brosnan (whose character, Richard, also narrates), Chris Cooper, Patricia Clarkson (as Harry and Pat Allen), and Rachel McAdams (as the other woman) treat their roles like chocolates that are so flavorful they're in no hurry to chew them up.
The premise isn't even unique. It's a throwback to those early dramas (so many of them B-movies) where a man plots to kill his wife because of another woman. The difference is the narration, which will remind many viewers of old private eye films. There are a lot of things that Richard can't quite figure out, and as he presumably talks aloud to himself we're invited to speculate right along with him about such things as why a marriage he thought was happy isn't at all, how a platinum-blonde knockout like Kay (McAdams) could be attracted to his friend (and not him), why Harry doesn't just keep a woman on the side and not mess with the marriage that holds his entire social existence together, and why eventually he decides that the kindest thing to do for poor Pat (Clarkson) is to kill her so she doesn't have to go through the pain of him leaving her. What a guy.
Based on the book Five Roundabouts to Heaven by John Bingham, "Married Life" almost feels as if it were inspired by a stage play instead, because it has a very staged feel to it in terms of character interaction and scenic construction--like one of the old "Playhouse 90" performances. But that too helps to contribute to the overall sense of period that permeates this production.
The biggest surprise, though, is that "Married Life" is also a wry comedy that's full of clever scenes and smart lines. The tip-off that we're not exactly watching a Hitchcockian treatment of the classic triangle comes early, with a playful animated-but-stylish title sequence, followed soon after by such wise lines as "Love is sex. The rest is affection and companionship" "In truth, I could never explain a woman's desire," or "It's always been the privilege of the well-to-do to use their business as camouflage." There are some clichés here, as when Kay explains to Richard that she's attracted to Harry because "I want to heal him," but moments like those are quickly undercut, as when this declaration is immediately followed by Richard's interior monologue: "Did I sense a breath of hesitation? I thought I did. I wanted to." And quickly, viewers are led off in another direction, suddenly just as interested in plot as, moments ago, the fascination was with character or the impulses that are common "truths" for all male and female behavior.
In retrospect, event he big twists in "Married Life" are things we've seen in those old films, but reinterpreted for the 2000s they take on a new look and feel. The stars do as they're supposed to and make you forget that they're actors. You're more concerned with human nature and the difference between someone thinking something and actually doing it, or struck by the games that males and females play with each other, sometimes without even knowing they're games.
As I said, "Married Life" is thick with atmosphere, and part of it is an intentional use of grain to add texture to the film. But it's just a slight bit of grain, even less than we normally get from an independent film. The colors are period-rich and the artificial aging tricks that were done in post-production serve well to make us believe the retro look. But in 1080p (AVC/MPEG-4 codec), it doesn't look overly processed, and that's good. I saw no noticeable artifacts, and the transfer to this BD-25 seems to have been a good one. "Married Life" is presented in 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
The audio was a nice surprise, maybe because the old noir movies that this one aped were always accompanied by a slightly scratchy mono track. Not so here. An English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 delivers a clear, precise audio that makes the dialogue sound pure and the ambient sounds that reinforce the period feel seem constant without being overpowering. The bass isn't thunderous, but that was never the case in old films. I was impressed by the featured soundtrack, which is also available in French. Subtitles are in English, English SDH, French, and Arabic.
There are roughly 20 minutes of alternate endings (three, count 'em) that play with mood and illustrate how open the process apparently was, with resolution not necessarily the most important facet. The only other bonus feature is the requisite commentary track from director Sachs, who talks up the cast and shares his influences for those who care about such things. Some of them are predictable, while others surprise. Sachs is pretty businesslike as he talks about the film, but appears to have come to the table prepared to say something, rather than winging it. There's very little dead space, and very few times when he's not saying something of interest.
As a film that successfully merges two genres--detective-style thriller and triangular comedy--"Married Life" also evokes the late Forties with equal deftness. The stars do their thing, and while you never feel you're seeing something for the first time, what's done here is done well.