Writer/director Noah Baumbach’s finest film to date, Marriage Story is superb piece of work that really ought to have been on my list of the ten best films of last year. However, I didn’t see it until now primarily because I wanted to see it properly, ie in the cinema as opposed to on Netflix (where it is currently streaming). Having finally caught up with the film last night at my local arts centre, I can add my voice to the chorus singing its praises.
This tragic-comic drama of marital breakdown begins with a pair of captivating monologues, in what appear (in montage) to be loving assessments made by Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) of one another’s greatest strengths. It turns out these assessments are part of a counselling session, in which the counsellor has advised them to list what they valued in one another, ahead of a separation, in order to minimise animosity, and to remind them of why they fell in love in the first place.
Said separation appears to have occurred due to Charlie’s avant-garde theatre direction keeping the couple in New York. Nicole is an actress who Charlie often casts as his lead on stage, but who longs to return to her home turf of LA to do film work, and to be nearer her family. However, gradually the real reasons for the separation are revealed. Whilst initially agreeing to keep the separation civil for the benefit of their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson), a series of revelations cause Nicole and Charlie to “lawyer up”. Soon the ugly divorce court hearing both desperately wanted to avoid begins to loom on the horizon as a real possibility.
This film is stunning for a number of reasons. Firstly, Baumbach’s first-rate screenplay, which resists cliché at every turn, adding depth to his characters in ways that have the profound ring of truth. Their blindness to their own faults, in particular their communication issues, and Charlie’s inability to recognise his own selfishness, is poignant and instructive. This is a powerfully affecting tale that cuts deep emotionally, but it is also a very witty, amusing story, frequently laugh-out loud funny. Whilst elements of it are cut from the same cloth as films we’ve seen before (especially Kramer vs Kramer and several Woody Allen films), this is also emphatically its own beast. It’s worth adding that certain subtle directorial images provide vivid metaphors for the narrative – one scene where Charlie and Nicole slide a broken house gate shut from different sides, for instance.
Which brings me to the astonishing lead performances. Driver in particular is extraordinary, and, I would argue, Oscar worthy. Incidentally, one reason this film is worth catching in the cinema is the nuance of the close shots. You just don’t get the same immersive intimacy on a television screen. Too much is said about cinema as spectacle, and not enough about its magical power to draw you into the inner world of a character, in a finely directed performance. Driver and Johansson’s chemistry sizzles, and we really feel their desperate sadness over the whole business, particularly in scenes where their respective lawyers are arguing their cases in the brutal, street-fight terminology they both despise. It’s both disconcerting and achingly sad seeing them together in between such scenes, still helping one another out over little things the way they always did, whilst tearing themselves apart.
Driver and Johansson are well supported, especially by the cynical, opportunist lawyer characters, played by the likes of Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, and most memorably Laura Dern (who I suspect will get a supporting actress Oscar nomination). Yet even these ghastly lawyers are not entirely without nuance. Alan Alda at one point explains that for all its foolishness and faults, divorce courts are meant to provide a legal framework to protect children from parents who refuse to support them. Laura Dern goes one better, delivering a blistering monologue about the double standard faced by women in legal proceedings, due to society’s double standard.
Ultimately though, this is Charlie and Nicole’s story. You grow to love and care deeply about both characters, despite all their flaws, and for their son Henry. The final scenes were almost unbearably moving, provoking well-earned tears from yours truly. Very funny, very touching, very wise, and quite brilliant. I loved it.
UK Certificate: 15
US Certificate: R
Content warnings: Strong language, sexual references.