Beyond ‘Happily Ever After’

Hollywood has always been preoccupied with that most exciting, most mercurial of human emotions: romantic love. There’s nothing particularly surprising about this obsession, of course: Filmmakers have long been drawn to those moments when human emotions run highest and most transparent, and if that isn’t a textbook definition of eros, I don’t know what is.
 
But despite the miles of celluloid dedicated to the rosy beginnings of mankind’s seminal institution, Hollywood generally pays little more than lip service to married life itself. It may be called “happily ever after,” but it’s so heavy on the “happy” as to verge on the giddy — and there’s really no “ever after” to speak of.
 
While the film industry as a whole may focus on the silver linings at the expense of the clouds, there remains a small-but-powerful stable of films that offer a more complex, more realistic view of marriage. It’s not always pretty, but it is profoundly important and deeply meaningful. And for those few films willing to recognize these facts, viewers should be deeply grateful.
 
A quick sampling of some of those films, classic and recent, that are particularly noteworthy:

 
Random Harvest (1942). That this film features an aging-yet-utterly-charming Ronald Coleman and a luminous Greer Garson should be reason enough to watch it. And good thing, too, because that’s almost as much as I can say about the movie without spoiling its effect. Helmed by one of Hollywood’s classic directors, Mervyn LeRoy, the picture tells the story of Smithy (Coleman), a happily married World War I vet whose mysterious past comes rushing darkly back to threaten his marital happiness with his beautiful wife, Paula (Garson). A fantastic performance from Garson anchors the film, and the unexpected twists and turns as the ending draws near will leave many a hardened cynic with a serious case of the warm-fuzzies. I cannot recommend it highly enough; I only wish I could be watching it for the first time — again.
 
 
Away from Her (2006). “All good things must come to an end,” and marriage is no exception to that heartless rule. But what happens when that ending comes at different times for the husband and wife? Such is the situation explored in Sarah Polley’s sweetly melancholic directorial debut. Adapted by Polley herself from Alice Munro’s short story “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” the film stars Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie as a couple struggling with the wife’s onset of Alzheimer’s and the unavoidable damage the disease is inflicting on their marriage.
 
In a series of flashbacks, Grant (Pinsent) recalls the high and low points he and his wife, Fiona (Christie), have experienced throughout “the afternoons and evenings” of their marriage. At the same time, he struggles to confront the fact that Fiona — recently moved to a medical facility designed to help alleviate the debilitating effects of her disease — grows more and more distant, even to the point of forgetting her relationship with her husband altogether. Grant’s struggles grow more pointed as Fiona — husband-less, as far as she knows — finds herself increasingly attracted to another of the nursing home’s attendees. Eventually, Grant must confront for the last time the struggle that faces every married couple: How do you reach that place of sacrifice where you gladly submit your own wants and desires for the good of your spouse?
 
 
Brief Encounter (1945). Hollywood legend David Lean is rightfully revered for the epic films he produced in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but in the early 1940s he collaborated with playwright Noel Coward on three play adaptations. One of those is Brief Encounter, based on the short play “Still Life,” which may well be his finest all-around work.
 
It tells the story of a British housewife and a married doctor who meet by chance in a train station, accidentally fall in love, and spend the next several weeks pitting their own personal emotions and desires against the tangible needs and importance of their respective families. A fascinating examination of the role of the will in married love, it deals with themes and issues that have been addressed by any number of other directors — Max Ophüls’s The Earrings of Madame de… is a particularly noteworthy (if less uplifting) companion piece — but the finale of Lean’s film is so unexpected and so subtly rewarding that it deserves pride of place.
 
(A bonus “marriage” film from Lean’s earlier years is Hobson’s Choice. It’s a much lighter, more amusing film than Brief Encounter, yet it still finds time to speak insightfully on the topic.)
 
 
Unbreakable (2000). M. Night Shyamalan’s “realistic superhero” film is about the never-ending conflict between good and evil, the importance of the relationship between father and son, and the way in which all of us must come to terms with the fact that we have been created for a higher purpose. But perhaps most importantly, it is a film about the damaging stresses and pressures put upon a marriage if it is allowed to stagnate. It chronicles one man’s realization that marriage is not “unbreakable” by its nature, and that one must work (and work hard) to assure that it is preserved unbroken.
 
Bruce Willis’s turn as David Dunn is career-defining (pipe down, Die Hard fans), and there are several scenes between him and Robin Wright Penn (playing his wife, Audrey) that are as insightful and painfully beautiful as anything I have seen on the topic. There are many reasons to watch this film, but its defense of (and fundamentally optimistic view of) the vital nature of marriage is at the top of the list — right under Samuel L. Jackson’s Elijah Price, of course.
 
 
Tokyo Story (1953). Another entry in the “married twilight” category, this extraordinary film from Yasujiro Ozu follows an elderly couple who leave their tiny village in southwest Japan to pay a visit to their grown children in Tokyo and Osaka. Like so many of Ozu’s films, it deals with the generational and cultural gap present in Japan around the time of World War II, but it also highlights several more universal truths, such as the way in which a long, faithful marriage becomes like a well-worn shoe — wonderfully comfortable, if perhaps a bit down in the heels. Or the way in which the loss of a loved one who has been a constant companion for so many years will leave the survivor feeling like half a person. Or (perhaps most interestingly) the inevitable moment of transition when children cease to feel like members of their parents’ family and begin to think of themselves in relation to their own families.
 
Slow-moving and sorrowful, Ozu’s film is not so much critical as it is resigned to the changes it depicts in married life. And while there is a definite sadness and suffering in the parents’ marriage as it draws to a close, there is something wonderfully and ultimately rewarding about it as well.
 
 
In America (2002). Unsurprisingly, a recurring theme in many of the more interesting films about marriage is infidelity. It is hard to see a more profound threat to an individual marriage than unfaithfulness, and the dramatic impact of such an attack has been used to excellent effect by a number of filmmakers in the past. But nearly as common a theme — again, unsurprisingly — is that of fertility. The fundamental role that procreation plays in the institution of marriage makes it (or its lack) a fertile playground for dramatic conflict.
 
In Jim Sheridan’s fantastic film about a young Irish immigrant family struggling to make it in New York City, the unexpected, unwanted pregnancy of wife Sarah (Samantha Morton) is the catalyst that finally brings husband Johnny (Paddy Considine) to terms with the event that caused them to flee Ireland in the first place, and which has been eating away at their family from the inside — the death of their only son. As pro-life and pro-family a film as has been made in some time, it is filled to bursting with small, insightful moments about the way spouses relate to each other and to the most tangible signs of their love: their children.
 
One word of caution: Both In America and Away from Her contain some adult material, of a nature that might be expected from films dealing with marriage.
 
♦ ♦ ♦
 
What are your favorite cinematic depictions of marriage? Feel free to leave them in the comments.

By

Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. Currently residing in Lander, Wyoming -- "where Stetsons meet Birkenstocks" -- he is a columnist for Crisis Magazine and the Patheos Catholic portal.

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