Through a Lens Darkly
Cinematic Refuge for the Valentine-Averse
Brief Encounter: Hollywood legend David Lean is rightfully revered for the epic films he produced in the '50s and '60s, but in the early '40s he collaborated with playwright Noel Coward on three play adaptations. And it is one of those, Brief Encounter, which may well be his finest all-around work. A British housewife and a married doctor meet by chance in a train station, accidentally fall in love, and spend the next several weeks pitting their desires against the tangible needs 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, but the finale of Lean's film is so unexpected and so subtly rewarding that it deserves pride of place.
Unbreakable: 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 pressures placed upon a marriage when we allow it 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. There are many reasons to watch the film, but its defense of (and fundamentally optimistic view of) the vital nature of marriage is at the top of the list.
In America: Many of the most interesting films about marriage deal with infidelity; there is no more profound threat to an individual marriage than unfaithfulness, and the dramatic impact of such an attack has been used to excellent effect by countless filmmakers. Nearly as common a theme, however, 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. 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.
A 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.
Joseph Susanka has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since his graduation from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. He blogs at Crisis Magazine, where he also contributes feature articles on a variety of topics.