A wry blend of dark humor, romantic deception, and stylish melodrama—with an invigorating dash of suspense—Married Life is an unconventional fable for grown-ups about the irresistible power and utter madness of love.
After decades of marital contentment, Harry (Chris Cooper) concludes that he must kill his wife Pat (Patricia Clarkson) because he loves her too much to let her suffer when he leaves her. Harry has fallen hard for the young and lovely Kay (Rachel McAdams), but his best friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan) wants to win Kay for himself.
As Harry implements his maladroit plans for murdering his wife, the other characters are entangled with their own deceptions. Like Harry, they race towards their passions but trip over their scruples, seemingly well-intended towards all, but truthful to none.
Married Life is an uncommonly adult film that surprises and confounds expectations. While it plays with mystery, comedy, and intrigue, its ultimate concern is: “What is married life?”
In its sly way, Married Life poses perceptive questions about the seasonal discontents and unforeseen joys of all long-term relationships.
Notes from Ira Sachs, Director and Co-Writer
When I set out to make Married Life, I wrote myself a few notes about what I intended to put on the screen. I hope I got most of it right.
MARRIED LIFE is….
A comedy of manners. Entertaining, sad, funny in the right places. If it works people won’t notice its deeper tones until after they left the theater, once they’re back in the lives, homes, bedrooms.
A contemporary film. The late 1940s should feel only like yesterday. No dark hues or “period” browns, no overly precious idea of what the period was like. It’s a modern movie set in another time. Though the customs might be different, the dilemmas are not. The characters could be our grandparents, our parents, ourselves.
A suspense film. Psychological, emotional, and driven by a murder in the making, love affairs in progress, and the hopelessly selfish pursuit of marital happiness.
A character drama. Our alliances shift in every scene until we don’t know what we want to happen. We empathize with all four of these people. Their mistakes, their ambiguity, their desire to love and be loved, are ours as well.
A glamorous throwback. The music will be rich, cinematic, not all period, not all within the past. Keep the audience involved through both plot and character, but also through the image itself. Don’t be afraid of shadows, of montage, of rich colors!
MARRIED LIFE is an intimate story played out in bold. Focus on the emotion, tension, drama, heart.
About the Production: Sachs, Cooper, Brosnan, McAdams and Clarkson Talk About Marriage
Writer/director Ira Sachs is swiftly emerging as a notable and versatile film talent. His last film, Forty Shades of Blue, was the Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner in 2005, while his first feature, The Delta, was a dark, uncompromising film of the most independent kind. With Married Life, he surprises expectations again, making a star-studded ensemble film with the craft and care that recalls the elegantly entertaining films made during the Hollywood studio system. Again showing his skills as an “actors’ director,” Sachs has made a film that, in its defiance of any one genre, is as contemporary, and emotionally precise, as any of his earlier work.
Sachs is an ardent film lover, with a particular admiration for 40s and 50s movies (bonus points for Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, as well as Hitchcock and Preminger), but Married Life is not primarily a film buff’s film. “ I wanted to make a film,” says Sachs, “that spoke gently and honestly about the complexities and intricacies of marriage and intimate life, and here was a plot –however outrageous it might seem—that in the end could do so in a way both direct and metaphoric.”
To find the story, Sachs pored over stacks of little-known mystery and pulp novels, until he came upon John Bingham’s Five Roundabouts to Heaven (Bingham, incidentally, was both a writer and a spy; John Le Carre based the character of Smiley on Bingham, his friend and mentor in the MI5, the British secret service). “It was exactly what I was looking for—a really great story that at its heart is about the complex nature of any long term relationship,” he says. “I thought this story could be a very intriguing vehicle for me to explore both the intimacy and the distance that arises between any two people who share a bed over a long period of time.”
1940s Style, 21st Century Flair
Married Life’s 1940s setting heightens the spark of tension between witty entertainment and dramatic realism. “People have lots of clichés in mind about the 50s—the styles, the culture—but the postwar 40s is fresher territory,” says Sachs. He assembled a stellar art department of set, costume, and production designers to bring his 40s setting to the screen. “We stayed away from 40s kitsch—no huge shoulder pads, no neo-noir lighting, no violent shades of lipstick. We aimed for a very modern sensibility, but we also love the glamour of the 40s and enjoyed the chance to revel in it—we searched through every specialized prop shop and costume house in New York and Los Angeles.”
A Sense of Whimsy
When Sachs began working with his co-writer, Oren Moverman, they agreed that the film should have a playful tone. ”From the opening credit sequence,” says Sachs, “ we signal to the audience that there is whimsy in the rather serious things to follow. I wanted the audience to understand that they don’t need to take every action too literally. Now, that doesn’t deny the dramatic nature of what happens between these characters. But I want the audience to experience the pleasure of a well-told tale without trying to think about it too hard. In that way, it is like some of the older films I loved as a kid: it’s a movie, a fantasy, and yet on another level it’s about some things that to me are very real and personal.”
“Every time I describe the film in a one-sentence line—people smile,” Sachs continues. “And there’s a reason for that. It’s over-the-top. A gentle, middle-aged man who falls in love decides to kill his wife because divorce would cause her too much pain. And he thinks he’s doing the conscientious thing! You could maybe find it hard to understand the decision our protagonist,
Harry (Chris Cooper) makes, but that’s looking at the story too literally. I find Harry very familiar. All too many people have difficulty differentiating their individual selves from the bonds of a long marriage. All the same, he’s not an easy character to make sympathetic, and I needed someone to play him that the audience could empathize with. And Chris Cooper makes a very good Everyman.”
The Trouble with Harry
Harry’s assumption that his wife Pat (Patricia Clarkson) can’t live without him is based on a stark misunderstanding of who she is. “There’s immense narcissism to his actions,” says Sachs. “He thinks Pat would be better off dead than divorced—and he’s totally wrong. In today’s terms, he might be called “co-dependent.” He’s lost and he doesn’t know his way out, but instead of choosing an honest way, he creates a world of trouble. As it turns out, Harry’s not a particularly good murderer (his conscience takes root), or we’d have a very different balance of humor and melodrama.”
Chris Cooper, who embodies the wayward spouse, says, “I think Harry’s big flaw is that he expects too much. In Noel Coward’s words, he’s looking for that ‘first, fine careless rapture.’ I think he had it with his wife, but it didn’t last, and now Harry is carried away by Kay, and his curious need for something more. ‘Mid-life crisis’ is the cliché, but rapturous love is the feeling.”
“Harry starts out in the film like a kid in a candy store,” says Sachs. “And then things get more serious for him because adult life is not like that adolescent joy from first love—there are too many complications that spring from all the history that’s come before.”
A Cad, but a Loveable Cad?
Sachs sees Harry’s friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan) as the most fun character in the film. “He’s intelligent, he’s charming, he has a wicked, dry sense of humor—if the movie had actually been made in the 40’s, Richard would be a terrific role for Cary Grant. And Pierce Brosnan brings lightness and a mischievous energy to Richard, while also showing you his vulnerability. Pierce makes Richard a cad you can love—bad behavior and all.”
Richard is involved in a betrayal nearly as dishonorable as trying to murder one’s wife: trying to seduce and steal away Kay (Rachel McAdams), his best friend’s dream romance. “I’m not going to try to defend what Richard does,” says Sachs, “but this story is about how people pursue their desires, and each of these characters pursues them with great passion. That’s not necessarily when people are the most kind to everyone around them. And to be honest, haven’t we all done things for ourselves at some point, rather than for the people we love?”
Pierce Brosnan sees another motive for Richard’s double-dealing, beyond his intoxication with Kay: “Harry and Pat are Richard’s only true friends—they really know him. And if Harry goes off with Kay, and breaks up his marriage, Richard loses everything—he loses the girl, he loses his friends, he’s the odd man out twice over.”
The Girl in the Cloud Room Door
For the role of Kay, Sachs needed an actress who would leave no doubt about her ability to enchant Harry and Richard. “The whole drama turns on Kay,” says Sachs. “She’s the star in the middle of the universe between these two men. When Kay walks into the restaurant in the opening of the movie, we have no trouble believing that these two men fall in love with her in an instant. Obviously Rachel McAdams has the loveliness, but more importantly, she has a certain mystery about her as well, something unattainable, and that’s what holds your interest. She’s very touching and sympathetic, but at the same time, she holds things back. There’s always something going on just under the surface”
Kay is a character who has suffered an incredible amount of loss—her father died when she was young, and she recently lost both her mother and her husband. “She’s spent a lot of time with herself, and I think she’s lost touch with reality a little bit,” says McAdams. “I think she’s drawn to Harry because they’re both a little bit broken, and need mending—and they comfort each other. Kay sees Harry as someone who can give her a home, security and love,” says Sachs, “And that means economic security, strength, consistency, and a kind of paternal comfort.”
Rachel McAdams, though, homes in on another side of Kay: “When Richard comes along, Kay starts to feel the wind in her hair and the leather seats in his car. He brings her out of her shell. Things would have been good for her and Harry, but when she meets Richard, it suddenly seems the world could be not only safe, but big.”
Sex and Sensibility
Harry’s wife, Pat (Patricia Clarkson), is also someone who’s trying to find her way in life. Patricia Clarkson shares her insights: “Pat has lived a rather conventional life, but she isn’t conventional herself. She thinks people have a self-deceiving attitude about love, and that it’s really only about sex. So if she fulfills that, she’s fulfilling her wifely duties. I do think she has a real relationship with Harry—it isn’t some false marriage—but I don’t think it was ever a deep, romantic love. And there’s something to be said for a woman, particularly at that point in her life when she has to look down the barrel of growing old with her husband, wanting that as well.” Yet for all Pat’s pragmatic attitude towards love and sex, Pat and Harry find a companionable depth of feeling despite their tribulations.
“A lot of people, particularly women, identify with Pat more than any of the other characters in the movie,” says Sachs. “She seems like someone you know. And Patty imbues her with an earthiness, and a wry, loving nature. Pat’s full of life, passion and tenderness, and that gives her such poignancy—as she is the woman whom Harry is plotting to kill.”
Let’s Hear It For Marriage
“The most important thing for me was that the tone of Married Life not be a cynical one,” says Sachs, “because I don’t feel cynical at all about long-term relationships. I just feel that they’re always a great, even noble, challenge. Everyone has some level of good, bad, and beauty in them.”
“Marriage is a struggle, and it takes work,” says Brosnan. “You may be challenged in life when you least expect it. And this film makes you ask yourself: ‘Can you do the honorable thing?’”
“Harry’s put Pat and his relationship with her in a box,” says Cooper. “He just settled and didn’t really appreciate how much he had. It’s a fatal flaw in a lot of relationships. Couples have to constantly work at keeping their relationships interesting and fresh. And I think Harry lost sight of that.”
“This film sheds a lot of light on the complications of relationships,” says McAdams. “You don’t always feel what you’re supposed to feel, and you’re not always the person that other people think you are. You’re not even always the person you think you are, until push comes to shove and your character is tested.”
“What I hope the movie does is make people feel less alone,” says Sachs. “When you’re in bed and you’re feeling slightly alienated from your wife or loved one, you can feel a certain kind of distance that is painful. And I hope that people will realize that they are just like the person in the next house, who’s also coping with these kinds of questions.”
“Harry starts off in the beginning of the movie knowing the least about the other characters,” Sachs continues, “and by the end he knows the most. He’s the one who knows all the secrets. He has come to wisdom, and through that wisdom has the ability to love.”