All of a sudden, Pierce Brosnan is absolutely everywhere. The Greatest, a family drama that begins its nationwide rollout today in New York and Los Angeles, marks the fourth theatrical release in the last two months for the 56-year-old actor. In that brief period he's played a bearded, wheelchair-bound teacher who also happens to be a centaur (Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief); a combative former British prime minister (The Ghost Writer); and the aloof pinstriped patriarch to Robert Pattinson's plaid-clad sulk (Remember Me).
The erstwhile James Bond has received by far the widest acclaim for his work in Roman Polanski's The Ghost Writer, a film the director reportedly finished editing while under house arrest in Switzerland. And Brosnan does bring a lot to the political thriller as Tony Blair-with-an-eight-figure-book-deal, letting more fury than usual break through that peerlessly charming exterior. Noting that the actor "catches the defensive self-righteousness of power," The New Yorker's David Denby wrote that in The Ghost Writer Brosnan gives "the strongest performance of his rather lazy career."
While Denby's prose is often amazingly precise—the phrase "punitive luxury," which he uses to describe the coastal state of exile in the Polanski film, really gets to the heart of things—his description of Brosnan's career as "lazy" still rankles me a little bit. It's not that I have a constant Denby in my bonnet, or that I make it my business to mull over every word employed by the often fogeyish critic. But I do think that Brosnan has made more interesting choices than he generally gets credit for. He can be rather wooden, but he hasn't just been coasting on charm.
Perhaps aware that he doesn't have the range to completely cast off 007, Brosnan has gamely played secretive professionals in a number of smaller films in the past decade. I'm thinking in particular of The Tailor of Panama (2001) and The Matador (2005), both mediocre but endearingly playful films in which he knowingly tweaks his debonair screen persona. He does something along these lines, though much more subtly, in Married Life (2007), perhaps the best film Brosnan has recently appeared in, and one that's decidedly underappreciated.
Directed by Ira Sachs (Forty Shades of Blue) and co-written by Oren Moverman, who made his directorial debut with last year's The Messenger, Married Life is a dark comedy set at the tail end of the 1940s. It deals with a tangle of relationships, marital and extramarital. Brosnan plays Richard Langley, a cad's cad who is best friends with Harry (Chris Cooper), himself married to Pat (Patricia Clarkson) but deeply in love with Kay (Rachel McAdams). In an attempt to ensure that his happiness isn't built upon the unhappiness of others—to use a variation on a common refrain in the film—Harry plots to poison his wife, allowing her to achieve "blessed release" in her sleep without having to register the awful deceit of her beloved husband.
With that last name Langley—also, of course, the Virginia location of CIA headquarters—Sachs and Moverman must be having some fun with Brosnan's on-screen history with intelligence agencies. (This may be a stretch, but it's also hard not to see the name of Brosnan's Ghost Writer character, Adam Lang, as a sort of foreshortened version of Langley, especially given the ending of the newer film. But that's probably already giving away too much.) Richard Langley is also the narrator of Married Life, coolly removed enough to elaborate the story's many twists and turns, even as he is pulled right into the midst of it all.
Richard gets scarcely any backstory, aside from his putatively long-standing friendship and a few stray references to his preternatural womanizing. The actor's British accent remains intact for the film, but I don't think it's remarked upon once by another character, though it's slyly alluded to by Sachs and Moverman. One scene takes place in a movie theater where Brosnan watches James Mason and Ava Gardner in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951). Mason didn't often drop his thick British accent—not for Nicholas Ray's new-to-DVD Bigger Than Life (1956), in which he plays an increasingly deranged all-American father figure, and not for Max Ophuls' 1949 film Caught, in which he plays an altruistic doctor surnamed Quinada. Brosnan's accent in Married Life is too strong to pass as crypto-New England patrician, and so it remains unplaced, and slightly off-putting—appropriately so for the narrator of a film that plays off attempted murder as farce.
Some might call Brosnan's performance in Married Life unimaginative, more reliant on his calling-card ease than his actual acting ability. But, as in The Ghost Writer, it's the restlessness peeking out from behind the dignified bearing—evident every time he lights a cigarette—that makes the performance interesting to watch. Cooper's turn as a misguided romantic might be more immediately amusing, but it's Brosnan's distinctly wistful suavity that keeps the 90-minute comedy humming along.