Marriage Story

Director: Noah Baumbach.
Screenplay: Noah Baumbach.
Starring: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda, Azhy Robertson, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever, Wallace Shawn, Matthew Maher, Brooke Bloom, Robert Smigel, Mark O’Brien.

“Getting divorced with a kid is one of the hardest things to do. It’s like a death without a body”

Although it wasn’t his directorial debut, The Squid And The Whale in 2005 was the film that made the majority of film lovers sit up and take notice of Noah Baumbach. It was my first experience of his style and he instantly captured my attention with his unflinching look at a couple navigating a divorce and the effect it has on their two adolescent sons. It is said that the film was heavily autobiographical and captured Baumbach’s own personal experiences of his parents’ separation and arguably remained his best film after 14 years of consistently excellent output. With Marriage Story, Baumbach has returned to that similar storyline with claims that it has again been influenced by his own marital breakdown to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh. Whether or not these claims hold any truth, there’s no denying that he has a complete understanding of the anatomy of a relationship and the cruel and devastating torment it can put upon a person, regardless of gender.

Plot: Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is a theatre director and his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) an actress who strive in balancing work with family life in New York. However, unhappiness sets in and Nicole decides it’s time to move on. An amicable breakup is planned but when Nicole decides to move to Los Angeles with their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson), lawyers are brought in to negotiate the details of their future and the amicability they sought soon turns sour and destructive.

In the opening montage we are introduced to Charlie and Nicole via voiceovers whereby both of the characters deliver an informative and in depth introduction to each other. The minutest details of their personal habits and idiosyncrasies are magnified and within minutes it’s apparent they know each other very intimately. Suddenly, we cut to a counsellors office as they attempt to mediate their divorce. Baumbach wastes no time in getting down to this couples issues and he does so with an almost fly-on-the-wall sense of realism and authenticity. It’s not without humour, however, and displays a playfulness that recounts the earlier work of Woody Allen. Baumbach has always had the ability to inject humour into his previous films but here it’s used to subtly capture the absurdity of the narratives painful predicament. Added to which, it affords attention to the characters’ loving moments before it all went horribly wrong.

The tone of the film is actually perfectly pitched. Baumbach is fully aware that this is a potentially depressing subject for many and anyone that’s went through a similar breakup when there are kids involved, will identify with its relentless precision. The obvious comparison would be Robert Benton’s iconic Kramer vs Kramer in 1979 but the difference between Baumbach and Benton’s film is that Baumbach treads that fine line of being able to accept the perspectives of both characters. This is an argument that could possibly rage on when discussing the film but I could understand Nicole’s reasons for filing divorce while also understanding Charlie’s frustrations. Benton didn’t entirely capture that in Kramer vs Kramer and, as brilliant as it was, it could be argued that it veered towards misogyny in focusing more on the male side of things.

Baumbach’s directorial decisions also compliment the story with his excellent use of space and his steadicam shots that linger long on emotional monologues. There’s one striking image, in particular, where both Charlie and Nicole are on opposite sides of a sliding security gate and as it closes they briefly glance at one another. In such a simple few seconds, this image captures the finality of their relationship – especially when gate is being physically closed by themselves. He also takes the time to let his actors loose; as ruthless, opposing divorce attorneys Laura Dern and Ray Liotta engage in the courtroom where our main characters’ private lives are brutally exposed and taken out of context but the most powerful is in Charlie’s new sparse living conditions where Baumbach brings the estranged couple together to try and reconcile and find an amicable solution to their problems. The scene begins sensitively and respectfully before quickly descending into a lacerating argument and Johansson and Driver seize their moment to shine. It’s in this instance that you realise that this is as much their film as it is Baumbach’s. The two of them are absolutely magnificent and thoroughly deserve some awards recognition for their outstanding contributions, not least Driver’s solo rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” towards the end of the film. This particular highlight comes out of nowhere and initially feels odd and misplaced but it soon harnesses an incredible power and leaves you emotionally shattered. For his work in Joker, it is already widely regarded that Joaquin Phoenix is a certainty for the leading actor Oscar this year but on the evidence of Driver, Phoenix has very strong competition.

Verdict: From the opening to the very last scene, this is a work of brilliance. Few filmmakers can structure or capture such authenticity in their storytelling as Baumbach does here. Relationship break-ups are never easy viewing but this is among the most heartbreaking and sensitively handled. It’s a very tender and hugely affecting film where both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson soar.

Mark Walker

Trivia: Third film starring Scarlett Johansson that was inspired by a writer-director’s own experience with divorce; the previous films being Lost in Translation for Sofia Coppola and Her for Spike Jonze respectively. Interestingly enough, Coppola and Jonze were married to each other in the past and Johansson has also went through two divorces herself.

3 Responses to “Marriage Story”

  1. Yeah I’ve heard this thing is really devastating. But worth it. It’s a small cast, but damn is it a good one!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Mark Walker / MARKED MOVIES: “…a work of brilliance. Few filmmakers can structure or capture such authenticity in their storytelling as Baumbach does here. Relationship break-ups are never easy viewing but this is among the most heartbreaking and sensitively handled. It’s a very tender and hugely affecting film where both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson soar.” […]


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