Beyond "Happily Ever After"

(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.

This piece first appeared at and is reprinted with permission.

11/16/2010 5:00:00 AM
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  • Joseph Susanka
    About Joseph Susanka
    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.