Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Looking ahead to the Seattle International Film Festival, which kicks off on May 11, I’m eager to see the new film by Ira Sachs, Passages. Sachs always strikes me as curiously under-appreciated (why the love for, say, James Gray, rather than this director?), so here’s my 2008 review (originally published in The Herald) of Sachs’ Married Life, a very curious, unfashionable, and highly watchable film. Meantime, I’ll have a slate of picks for the festival in next week’s column.
Using limited means, Married Life conjures up a particular moment in the late 1940s. This is not a big-budget movie, so the details—highball glasses, handsome clothes, cigarettes—conjure up the period.
That’s one of the key attractions for this unusual, grown-up movie. It’s based on a 1950s novel called Five Roundabouts to Heaven by John Bingham, a man who was long involved in the British secret service (and mentored John le Carre—in fact le Carre says he modeled his famous spy George Smiley after Bingham).
The title change suggests that director Ira Sachs has more on his mind than the suspense plot. But the suspense is rather well-handled. A successful man, Harry (Oscar winner Chris Cooper), is disenchanted with his marriage. He confides to his best friend Richard (Pierce Brosnan) that his wife Pat (Patricia Clarkson) lacks soul. In fact, she’s mostly interested in sex.
Poor Harry has grander needs, which our now focused on a young war widow, Kay (Rachel McAdams, of The Notebook), with whom he’s having an affair. This would be easy to shrug off as a midlife crisis, except that Harry is convinced his wife couldn’t handle a divorce. It would be much kinder, he concludes, if he just quietly killed her.
There’s another complication, which is that Richard, a rogue of the highest order, is also smitten with Kay. Harry, not the sharpest tool in the shed, doesn’t suspect a thing.
Director Sachs, who made the fascinating mood piece Forty Shades of Blue, takes a different tack here. The movie hits the eye like a studio movie of its era, with a foursquare, slightly over-lit look. In some shots, Pierce Brosnan looks exactly like Fred MacMurray in the classic film noir Double Indemnity. Yet the attitude feels modern and open. The characters played by Brosnan and Clarkson, in particular, are intriguing beyond the machinations of the plot, people whose attitudes belong in a different era.
Strange film, but its low-key approach plays well. And it continues Brosnan’s terrific post-007 run (notably The Matador and Seraphim Falls). He still seems to be wearing the excellent threads from the Bond days, and he still knows how to handle a martini.
May 5, 2023
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.