In 2005 Noah Baumbach released The Squid and the Whale, a film telling a story of divorce witnessed from the perspective of two children. It was a film full of anger and confusion, as events far beyond the control of its two young leads spiralled out of control in front of them. Fourteen years later Baumbach is tackling the subject of divorce in his new film, Marriage Story, a more mature, more compassionate and strikingly humane piece of cinema.
Star of stage and screen Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) and her husband Charlie (Adam Driver), an acclaimed theatre director, are undergoing a gruelling coast to coast divorce that pushes them beyond their emotional limits as they attempt to untangle their deeply entwined lives.
In a similar way to which Netflix’s other prestige release of 2019, The Irishman, showcased Martin Scorsese’s matured perspective in exploring a familiar narrative, Marriage Story is an example of Baumbach undergoing that same process. Here he revisits the subject of divorce and division, but from the perspective of the parents instead of the children.
If The Squid and the Whale evoked its raw emotion from a lack of clarity, an inability for the lead characters to understand the motives and consequences of a divorce, then Marriage Story elicits an emotional response by clarifying every reason and result in agonising detail. By the end of the film, Baumbach has given his audience clear insight and intimate familiarity with the history of this marriage, its dynamic and the reasons behind its collapse.
However, the harsh reality of the situation is that even this level of understanding and clarity cannot reduce the difficulty of watching these two people separating. Bambach paints a portrait of two people who were, and in many ways still are, deeply in love with one another gradually coming to terms with their incompatibility.
Marriage Story is a tough but honest film about love
It is in this regard that the compassion with which Baumbach treats his characters is essential. The first images of the film are a montage of Charlie and Nicole’s married life, accompanied by each of them reading a letter describing what they adore the most about their spouse. As the title would suggest, this is not simply a story of divorce, but rather a story of a marriage that just happens to be at its end.
The tonal mastery with which Baumbach navigates their separation is excellent. Never descending into a simplistic monosyllabic view, the script injects several moments of humour and humanity into proceedings. It refuses to portray this process as a one-note tragedy but instead tries to convey the many turns and nuances as the divorce unfolds.
But just as the script uses this variation of tone to relieve the severity, it can also reinforce it. Moments early in the film that seem light-hearted eventually come back around as Nicole and Charlie’s settlement escalates into a war of words. Flaws within each other that once seemed endearing turn into weaknesses to be attacked and exploited. It serves to highlight the desperation of two well-meaning people.
To say that Charlie and Nicole’s relationship feels genuine is an understatement. There’s a grounded believability to their romance in this opening montage that is almost uncomfortably intimate. It’s as if we are peering into a uniquely cherished connection and to have them state it all out loud is a little disconcerting. But that awkwardness is what sets the tone for the rest of the film, a view into a world that had previously only been occupied by two people, now being dissected and examined by countless others.
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are incredible
Read more: The Irishman Review
I have seen many individual scenes from Marriage Story being shared and circulated on social media, either praised as powerful or criticised as melodramatic. But I think simply watching individual scenes can never give a full view of just how impressive the performances of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are.
We tend to view great acting as being overtly “emotional”, as explosive and expletive. But truly great performances can be recognised when viewed as a whole. It comes down to how an actor positions themselves in smaller moments, how they build a character through tiny gestures and minute interactions which serve to make their louder scenes all the more impactful.
That is the exact process by which the actors in Marriage Story evoke such a dramatic response. They remain grounded and relatable for a majority of the film, but in doing so they create a state of emotional tension. We find ourselves waiting desperately for the moment when their inner grief and anger will make itself known when it will explode into a conversation and forever change the dynamic of this couple.
When Charlie and Nicole do unleash their innermost frustrations at one another, it is astonishingly powerful, but only because of the tireless work Driver and Johansson have put into crafting two empathetic characters with their own delicate nuances. It is through contrasting those versions of Charlie and Nicole with the raw desperation of their arguments later on that the film reaches its dramatic crescendo.
Despite working so brilliantly in tandem and sharing such endearing on-screen chemistry, Driver and Johansson are just as excellent when viewed as individuals. The determination and warmth Johansson injects into Nicole via her performance is perfectly tuned against Driver’s controlling secureness. They realise specific and endearing qualities about their characters, qualities that become all the more heartbreaking when they are used as ammunition in their eventual fallout.
Noah Baumbach’s direction in Marriage Story is Bergman-esc
Read more: The Nightingale Review
In a film like Marriage Story, it is easy to place the emphasis on the performances and dialogue, but Baumbach’s direction is just as important an element in telling this story. He consistently refuses to unite Charlie and Nicole in the same shot, giving it untold significance when they are finally within the same frame. But even then the couple is frequently placed on opposite sides of the frame, putting visual barriers between them to reflect their growing distance.
The intimacy with which Baumbach shoots Marriage Story feels similar to that of Ingmar Bergman’s family dramas. An emphasis on the closed expressions and physical placement of a character is immediately noticeable. Baumbach understands that the way a person can look or stand in relation to someone else can often speak just as loud as their words.
It would be so easy to take a side in this story, to root for an outcome in which one character is punished and another vindicated. But I think to take a singular side is to miss the point of Marriage Story. It is a movie about seeing the good and bad in both parties, to see the love and anger shared by both people for one another. It is a movie that states a harsh reality, that even the greatest understanding cannot relinquish the deepest heartbreak.
Marriage Story is available to stream on Netflix right now.
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