Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) are atop New York’s theatre scene and have a wonderful marriage – until Nicole’s demand for divorce changes everything. What starts as an amicable separation quickly snowballs into a coast-to-coast angry split, with both battling to retain what they had and forge a new life for themselves in the chaos.
Director-writer Noah Baumbach is no stranger to bittersweet comedy dramas about family life coming unstuck. From his Academy Award-nominated The Squid and the Whale through to his latest, changing relationships are a regular theme. But Marriage Story may be his apex for unspooling these messages. The story is sweet, heartfelt, brutal, funny, and crushing, with every complexity and awkwardness of ending a relationship present. As Nicole says, “it’s not as simple as not being in love any more” – and how Baumbach manages deep diving into a marriage going under is a sight to behold.
Johansson’s Nicole and Driver’s Charlie are painted as the ideal pair through a montage of the protagonists listing what they love about the other. And then, just like that, Baumbach takes apart this happy image, revealing the declarations as a mediation act between the couple during separation. Baumbach continues to confront fantastical narratives with reality throughout his film – all the characters are guilty of creating shared narratives that aren’t truthful. From Nicole’s mother convincing herself that her relationship with Charlie won’t change despite divorce to the couple’s lawyers ‘changing the narrative’ for the courts, Baumbach uses perspective time after time to show how personal agenda affects the truth. Baumbach also makes clever use of spacing within his mise en scene to show distance between characters. Small spaces, like the inside of a rail carriage, become cavernous as the couple drift apart, until a final confrontation brings them close together again – literally. Clever touches like this are the hallmark of a talented filmmaker and writer. The only element detracting from the directing and scripting is the ending. Different viewers may want different things from a film with a topic as emotive as divorce, but for me the final sequence left me wanting something more concrete for both characters.
The performances in Marriage Story, across the board, are spine tingling. Johannsson in particular excels as the effervescent Nicole, capturing important nuances distinguishing surface emotions from private thoughts and feelings with ease. Every little glance and body motion tells her story, but Johansson’s considerable acting range fits the bill perfectly for this role. Driver is also wonderful as the vulnerable Charlie and is the perfect stoic foil for the expressive Nicole. While Driver does get more material to work with (Baumbach doesn’t give equal weight to the private struggles of both his protagonists), the pair’s natural chemistry when onscreen together just makes their scenes even more compelling. A confident Laura Dern and snarling Ray Liotta, playing the couple’s attorneys, lead a good supporting cast.
Marriage Story, by its nature, couldn’t have been perfect. Divorce is too messy, it’s characters too divisive, to offer every viewer a sense of accord and completion. But that’s the film’s beauty – it’s defined by its emotional journey, not a neat and tidy peace after marital war.
Marriage Story’s title reveals the film’s comic poignancy. It’s really about divorce, but it’s the moments of marital sweetness within the anger that are the true story. 7.5/10.