After slumming in the by-the-numbers thriller Shattered, Pierce Brosnan fully redeems himself with a masterful, nuanced performance in Married Life, ably holding his own against spy stalwart Chris Cooper, who’s arguably one of the greatest actors of our time. Patricial Clarkson and Rachel McAdams round out the ensemble cast of this 1949-set domestic drama/thriller, each turning in reliably impressive performances. Brosnan, who also narrates the movie, plays a character whose actions should make him the most unattractive of the quartet, but manages the neat trick of actually making him likable despite that. Such a feat requires a unique blend of acting ability and pure charm, both of which Brosnan possesses in spades. If only his last two Bond movies had afforded him the same opportunities to show off those qualities as his more daring turns in films like this, The Matador and The Tailor of Panama! One review of Married Life refers to Brosnan as "the poor man’s Clooney," but while he might occupy that position in the Hollywood hierarchy, it’s certainly an unfair assessment of his considerable skills. It’s true that Clooney is one of the few actors out there who shares this mixture of charm and talent (a combination that used to amount to something called "star quality"), but as my girlfriend commented as we left the theater, I doubt even he could have pulled off this particular role.
Director Ira Sachs and production designer Hugo Luczyc-Wyhowski manage to stretch their presumably small budget enough to create a richly-detailed, convincing period setting, and Michael Dennison’s costumes give James Bond fans the opportunity to see what Brosnan (rarely without his fedora) might have looked like playing that role in the post-war, jet-age milieu of Fleming’s early novels. McAdams, sporting a platinum blond coiffure, also benefits from the style of the period, channeling the most glamorous stars of the forties and fifties and turning in a particularly impressive performance in the process. Forties styles also play a key role in the inventive title sequence, which takes its cue from pulp covers of the era.
The plot, in which Cooper’s character plans to kill his wife (Clarkson) because he can’t bear to see her suffer when he tells her he’s leaving her for McAdams, is Hitchcockian (in fact, the book on which it’s based also served as the basis for an episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour), and the movie duly reflects that with some evocative mise-en-scene and music, as well as a few blatant references. Certain scenes owe a particular debt to Dial M for Murder and Suspicion, and Cooper has one very tense drive home worthy of the master himself. Other than that, however, the pacing isn’t quite up to Hitch’s standards, and the whole thing plays a bit stagier than any of his movies of that era. The other auteur who comes readily to mind is Woody Allen (in his Match Point mode, not his Casino Royale mode), and staginess has always worked alright for him, so maybe it’s not a bad thing. Neither director is exactly bad company for Ira Sachs to find himself in, and he does so largely thanks to his talented cast, and a particularly versatile ex-James Bond. In fact, I daresay Brosnan may be the most versatile ex-James Bond. He’s certainly on his way, and (Shattered aside) more roles like the ones he’s been choosing should give him the edge.