It's 1949 and the mores of marriage, morality and murder seem all too familiar. Based on a novel by John Bingham, "Married Life" is a laconic tale of intrigue, lust and suburbia that feels both noir and innocently wholesome.
As narrated by the easygoing yet diabolical Richard (a charming and perfectly smooth Pierce Brosnan), the multilayered fable unfolds -- at least initially -- as the unraveling of just another unhappy marriage.
But the writers and director Ira Sachs also force us to look inward: How well do you know your spouse? What would you do for him? More disturbing: What would you do to her? As Richard coolly concludes: "You can't know what goes on in the mind of the person sleeping next to you."
While Richard likens marriage to "a mild illness, like flu or chicken pox, to which I was safely immune," his friend Harry (Chris Cooper) has already taken the plunge.
Long married to Pat, he is devoted and dangerously distracted. And since Harry could not stand to "shatter Pat's world and make her suffer," Rich casually reveals, "the only logical way to save Pat from suffering, was for Harry to kill her."
Pat, too, is not what she seems. The perfect hostess and occasionally desperate housewife nonchalantly assures her husband, "Love is sex; the rest is just affection and companionship."
Full of regret and deception, Patricia Clarkson gives a superb performance. Wily in her superficial bliss, Pat appears almost too refined and delicate for such a stoic, staid husband.
And ever lurking in the background is Kay, the distant, unattainable blond bombshell who drives Harry to want to destroy his marriage.
As played by a wispy and restrained Rachel McAdams, Kay has a soft-spoken demeanor that somewhat diminishes her pivotal importance to the plot. Sadly, the role is not substantial enough for someone of McAdams' brilliance.
A far odder bit of casting is Cooper as her sinister, tormented lover. One would expect to see Dennis Quaid, Jude Law, Timothy Hutton or even Richard Gere in such a polished, outwardly romantic lead role. Much too dour, introspective and old, a haggard Cooper gives a fine, measured performance. But he presents much too sharp a contrast with not only Kay, but his suave best friend, Rich.
Deliciously evil, Richard combines jet-setting playboy with calculating, patient Everyman. He is not totally convinced that "one can build happiness on the unhappiness of someone else." Yet he makes no effort to change his obdurate ways after realizing that, "when it comes to the opposite sex, most men are selfish."
Trying to hide his own attraction to Kay, he observes: "You can never explain a woman's desire. It's always been a bit of a mystery."
Given his intimate knowledge of the secret lives of Harry and Pat, Rich retains the upper hand. As confidant and outside observer, he not only manipulates each situation to his advantage, but sees that as these two characters change, they become more like one another.
Dark, depressing and yet refreshingly real, this throwback to "Far From Heaven" and "A Perfect Murder" offers a grim, yet wholly believable slice of married life.