Films following the start of relationships, full of swooning glances and intimate first encounters, are a common occurrence. Those focusing on the messy end of them are far rarer. So in steps indie darling Noah Baumbach with his latest, one of the season’s big awards contenders. The director has a track record of intimate familial explorations (The Squid & the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)), but here seems to perfect his formula. Marriage Story is funny, heart-breaking and, at times, brimming with anger, as it chronicles a couple’s increasingly acrimonious divorce.
Charlie is a theatre director in New York; Nicole is his former wife who has relocated to Los Angeles to film a TV series. The film begins with kind words about each other’s partner, but soon descends into razor sharp words and courtroom conflicts. Marriage Story is like watching a relationship’s death due to a thousand little cuts, and is as painful as it sounds.
At the film’s core is a pair of exemplary performances that will surely be considered amongst the year’s best. As the married couple, Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver give subtle, powerful turns. Baumbach chooses to run several of the key scenes in long takes, giving each performer a chance to subtly shift their performance, particularly in moments that mix tragedy and comedy. Johansson’s Nicole is a likeable figure, whose own rage seems to surprise her, whilst Driver’s Charlie feels realistically drawn, a mix of well-earned confidence and a flawed bravado. If these two aren’t contenders at next year’s Academy Awards, it will be a total shock.
In a skilled ensemble it is the lawyers who stand out. Laura Dern gives a terrifyingly seductive turn, adept with a smile and a focused fury. Ray Liotta exemplifies the worst of the industry, and is simultaneously the funniest and most depressing figure in Marriage Story. And Alan Alda acts as an endearing voice of reason, offering the narrative a happier path, before it turns to a more realistically bleak one.
As intimate and personal as this film feels (Bambauch has had experience with divorce), it also finds room to explore the cultural differences that play out in American cultural. The conflict between Nicole and Charlie also feels like a proxy fight between New York and Los Angeles, with many of the film’s lighter moments produced by this. And that is probably what is most surprising about Marriage Story. The sorrow and heartbreak is to be expected by the subject explored, but the comedy is what makes the film so effective. It soothes audiences, draw them in to this couple’s story and leaves us open to the emotional toll the film takes on us. It is what makes this Bambauch’s best film to date and justifies the two hour plus run time. Marriage Story is not always an easy watch, but it is always a brilliant one.
This review was previewed at the London Film Festival, October 2019