With a masterclass script and perhaps Johansson and Driver's best performances, the compassionate but equally gut-wrenching Marriage Story is a colossal achievement for writer-director Noah Baumbach and one of the best films of the year.
Inspired, perhaps, by writer-director Noah Baumbach’s own personal story of divorce, Marriage Story is an intimate exploration of how a marriage can implode upon itself, leaving the film’s spouses, Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), to come to terms with each other and best resolve a legal case that becomes increasingly damaging as they take turns one-upping the other.
From this premise, and the unassuming title, it is not hard then to think of Marriage Story as a run-of-the-mill drama. This is deliberately the image that sets the film up for its portrayal of an authentic, earnest world in which the most mundane conversations might come packed with subtle jabs, hinting at a torrent of complicated emotions and unfulfilled desires. Small moments in every single scene slowly lead the two main characters towards their personal breaking-points. When the bubble bursts, the situation is raw, messy and fierce but also remarkably real.
This is not to say that the film heavily relies on its climax but, rather, that the conclusion feels earned as Marriage Story expertly presents how the marriage deteriorates in the lead-up to an ultimate confrontation. This scene reveals the immense and irreversible damage that the two have dealt to one another, serving as the emotional crux of a movie that is gut-wrenching throughout. The affecting story gradually escalates, expecting the viewer to swallow hard over and over again. The greatest feat of Marriage Story is that it does the near impossible in depicting both classic, relatable episodes of married life whilst, at the same time, unfolding how uniquely difficult the marriage between Charlie and Nicole is. To take Tolstoy’s line (“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”), Marriage Story presents how the world contains unhappy marriages, a fact of life, but also how each particular marriage, and in this case, Charlie and Nicole’s, is unhappy in its own, incredibly personal way.
All this of course is the result of a masterful script penned by Baumbach, in which every line is an incision cut revealing the deep shared history between the pair. Every line exchanged, as simple as it may seem, carries incredible weight behind it. As Nicole says, ‘everything’s about everything in a relationship.’ And yet, despite how brutal the film can be at times, there is also something so tender and sincere in the way the story is told. Marriage Story is a story of hate but also love, of separation but also reconciliation as the film brilliantly explores all the complicated ways in which love persists – even when it makes less sense for it to do so. Baumbach’s film shows how, even in the process of divorce, the couple is still irrevocably tied to each other and how a marriage can be dissolved though the family is left still standing.
It helps that the two main actors bring such power and life to the couple. Johansson is absolutely superb: her portrayal of a Pygmalion-like actress that has little control over her life is spellbinding. She is so powerful in her vulnerability, delivering a magnetic performance which, more likely than not, will set her up for several nominations in the coming awards season. Driver, too, in the role of the controlling, demanding director of a successful New York theatre company (of which Nicole is formerly a part of), is capable of such a momentous performance that brings incredible depth and range to his character. As the gruelling divorce goes on, Driver renders Charlie’s desperation and then subsequent shame perfectly, leading to a performance which surely rivals his work in last year’s BlacKkKlansman and is already creating Oscar buzz. As for the supporting roles, Laura Dern is a stand-out, displaying the full viciousness of a lawyer fighting (and thriving) in the dog-eat-dog world of legal settlements in corporate California.
All things considered, Marriage Story is undoubtedly one of the year’s best films, due to the sharpness and intelligence of the script parred with the spellbinding performances of the cast. These aspects imbue the movie with a kind of earnestness and authenticity that is equal times engrossing and debilitating. As for the biggest lie in the entire movie? Adam Driver not being able to open jars by himself.
Marriage Story, directed by Noah Baumbach, is available to stream now via Netflix, certificate 15.