Marriage Story

Ahlia Karam and Jacob Richardson | 20/12/2019

The Oscar buzz comes as no surprise with this heart wrenching portrayal of a bitter, protracted divorce.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is a stage director in New York, whose shows are becoming increasingly popular, soon to hit the Broadway stage. His wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is his muse and star, whose early Hollywood career was dropped to live in New York with Charlie, and in the beginning helped propel this stage company to recognition. Alas, the promise of a new role in Los Angeles catalyses the beginnings of a bitter divorce, stretched across the continent itself as Charlie fights for an amicable separation and the preservation of his and his son’s life in New York, and Nicole fights for the roots of a new life for her and her boy in sunny, spacious Los Angeles. 


Written, directed and produced by Noah Baumbach, of Kicking and Screaming (1995) and Frances Ha (2012) fame, Marriage Story is a deeply fractious story; an looming, unavoidable spiral from civility towards spite, bitterness and hatred. As Baumbach portrays them, Charlie and Nicole seem like two huge cruise ships on course to collide, unable to steer out of the way of that destructive meeting no matter how much they try. Baumbach, albeit with more narrative structure than some of his more mumblecore ventures, nevertheless revels in the cinema of the adult; a world in which beautifully written dialogue between characters, or delivered in seemingly natural monologue, is not only completely at peace with the world we are witnessing, but comes across as authentic, engaging and true.


No matter how long we sit with it, the audience is inevitably enraptured with those 6 minute monologues and 10 minute verbal battles, without ever losing an iota of interest. Not even for a splash of out of place musicality, Baumbach somehow manages to weave in a musical number by Driver, to show off the baritone that got him into Juilliard in the first place. 


The casting here is superb. Laura Dern and Ray Liotta are perfectly cast as opposing divorce lawyers; seemingly cut from different clothes in their approaches to their respective clients, but ultimately of the same ilk. In a tense courtroom drama we see Dern’s Nora Fanshaw, hitherto the more reasonable, consoling of the two lawyers (as opposed to Liotta’s Jay Marotta who is like a world-weary, bitter shark out to bite everything he can), ditch her jacket in a beautifully subtle piece of mise-en-scene and unleash the very same poison back at her legal foe. Indeed, as Nora gloats to Nicole about a last twist of the knife she dealt to Charlie, we see her true colours are as black as, if not blacker than, Jay, who we first assumed to be so vile. Perhaps then mirroring our main couple as well, speaking more broadly to the story, which is frequently an uncomfortable watch. 


Charlie is villified from the off; an uncaring, disloyal husband whose single-minded career focus has ruined Nicole’s life (although she neglected to identify this during the marriage). As the movie continues, we see somewhat of a reversal of those antagonist-protagonist roles; Nicole seemingly uninterested in any effort to keep things civil, now pushing harder and harder, at the behest of her lawyer and spurred on by the revelation of some adulterous emails. The class element (with Nicole having the family money for a protracted divorce, and Charlie the somewhat struggling, self-made artist) helps move this shift along as details are revealed.


This balancing of the scales all leads to a climactic, ten minute long verbal battle between our two leads; at once mesmerising and deeply repulsive. Johannson and Driver, who up until this point have already been excellent as their respective characters (Johannson even playing an appropriate character for once), step up in a big way to deliver a masterclass in performance. Anger and bitterness, coupled with a deep desire to put this behind them and to protect their son, course through this scene, leading to ebbs and flows in the tone of the fight. The explosive ending leaves Driver’s Charlie wracked with sobs on the floor, utterly spent; the final sputter in a long and protracted fight that eventually leads to a relatively amicable outcome. 


While scenes like this, in all their forceful drama, solidify the Oscar-worthiness of our leads, it should be said that Marriage Story has moments of levity that feel so odd and kooky you could only imagine them fixtures of a Baumbach piece. There’s something inherently pretentious, yet also inherently exclusive, about Driver’s cinematically relevant Halloween costume for him and his son, and Nicole’s sister (played by Merritt Wever) does comedic wonders with a miscellaneous Pecan Pie in one of the most trying times of the central duo’s relationship. 


Marriage Story, like most of the recent prestige Netflix releases, only had a limited theatre release before it became available for streaming. Unlike The Irishman, however, this is definitely appropriate streaming fare - something that feels so raw and poignant that watching it with other people would feel wrong. 


The film is so honest about parts of divorce that other stories may brush over - the cost, the formalities, and the simple fact that this was the end, not a chance for redemption - that it creates an intensely private feeling. 


Marriage Story beautifully, and heartbreakingly, depicts how vile, vicious and expensive divorce can become, no matter how civilly it begins. Make sure you allow an extra hour to sit in silent contemplation, questioning every decision you’ve ever made and the existence of true love all together. And make sure if you have a problem with your partner, don’t wait 10 years to tell them.

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Copyright Film Focus 2021