Rating4.5 / 5
Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern
6 December 2019
Noah Baumbach’s message is clear – whoever said war is hell has surely never been through a divorce.
After a long, mostly happy period together, 30-something-year-old couple Charlie (Adam Driver), a successful theatre director, and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), his acting muse, find themselves facing difficulties in their marriage. Nicole sees new career offers outside New York as the right opportunity to file for divorce from Charlie, beginning a long, traumatic battle amidst an attempt to retain a sense of family for the sake of their son.
What is it about deteriorating marriages that makes them so fascinating to watch? It’s likely the sheer drama emitted by the situations and complications that come with falling out of love with someone. But when witnessing such a breakdown – when done well – it can tap into a complex emotional place and stir a hurricane of very intense feelings.
Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, While We’re Young) is a man who, for better or worse, truly, deeply understands the trauma of a divorce. He’s already explored his own parents’ separation earlier in his filmography with The Squid and the Whale, and since then he’s had the added heat of his own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh – from which Marriage Story takes a great deal of inspiration. Pile on the claims of countless breakups of friends all around him (of whom he interviewed, along with lawyers, judges and mediators) and it seems as though Baumbach is a magnet for and an expert on the distressing subject, which Marriage Story brilliantly proves in all its messy, warts-and-all glory.
The film opens with both Charlie and Nicole monologuing everything they love about the other – the endearing quirks, the gestures both grand and tiny, how each one makes up for the other’s shortcomings and the strong bond they hold with their son. Combined with a typically whimsical Randy Newman score, it immediately romanticizes their marriage in the way that most love stories do and fills us with optimism of the magic they share. Or at least did once.
As the fantasy fizzles, it’s revealed we’re in Nicole and Charlie’s couples’ therapy. The love letter to one another is just an activity set by their councillor that both are too tense to actually read aloud. And this is just the tip of their rapidly crumbling iceberg.
Throughout, the audience is made to feel like the child caught in the crossfire of their parent’s separation. We err back and forth between whose side we’re on, face the difficult understanding that a side probably shouldn’t be picked and feel the weight and struggle of searching for a middle ground.
Both characters are deeply flawed. Both show their true colours and at times rear their very ugly heads in heated yelling matches, but it’s astounding to witness the humanity grow in both. By the end, you just want both of them to find something approaching happiness, even if it seems like an impossible outcome. Driver and Johansson deliver career-best turns, and both, particularly Driver, are truly deserving of some serious awards recognition.
Baumbach has delivered perhaps the ultimate movie about divorce and boy does it make us feel all the massive emotions of one. Messy, infuriating, funny, sad and distressing, Marriage Story cuts, very, very deep.
Image courtesy of Netflix Australia