There have been a handful of divorce movies produced over the years, each exposing the bitter-sweet reality of broken relationships. Whereas notable classics like Kramer vs Kramer (dir. Robert Benton, 1979) and Mrs. Doubtfire (dir. Chris Columbus, 1993) present a fairly one-sided perspective of divorce (that being of the father/child), Marriage Story allows us to negate both sides of the argument. Though theatre director Charlie (Adam Driver) is a selfishly work-oriented cheater, we still sympathize with his unrelenting determination to see his son. On the other hand, actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) demands the impossible of her struggling ex, yet her charm and kindness radiates off the screen to draw us in.
Director Noah Baumbach achieves this balanced viewpoint within the first ten minuets of Marriage Story. In a Woody Allen-esque depiction of a New York couple, we open to nostalgic clips of a happy family. Overlapping this is an effecting narration on what the couple love about each other: “She’s a great dancer, infectious”, “He’s a great dresser. He never looks embarrassing” and “He loves being a dad. He loves all the things you’re supposed to hate, like waking up at night. It’s almost annoying how much he likes it.”
It’s here we begin to see the threads loosening: Charlie’s a good dad, but he’s annoying. They love each other, but they can’t stand each other. And it’s this but that the film is based around.
Baumbach’s tragicomedy isn’t as simple as two people hating each other (though at times they do). Marriage Story is realistically complex in its portrayal of relationships, which are by nature riddled with difficulties. Mid-argument, Nicole notices herself calling Charlie “honey” and stops herself. It’s these small insights that remind up break-ups aren’t clear cut; you can care for someone even if you’ve fallen out of love with them. Just as you can despise them one minuet, and other times miss them. It’s complicated and it’s exhausting – just like real life. This is how Baumbach achieves such a sincere level of intimacy and honesty. At some moments you’ll laugh, and at other’s you’ll cry. As Nicole says, “It’s not as simple as not being in love anymore.”
Marriage Story takes note of the practicalities of divorce, as well as the emotional strain. After all, paying for a lawyer and moving house has a major bearing on a characters emotional responses. Baumbach weaves us through the frustrations and victories of changing ones life; pressing on the characters stresses and lingering on the awkward moments. The audience can feel the heat of manipulating lawyers and harsh insults almost as much as the characters (a true mark of great filmmaking).
Marriage story is a prickly tale, but it’s not without its touching moments. The pastel colour palette relieves the aggressiveness of divorce, and heart-warming scenes remind us that it’s not all bad. Baumbach complicates the traditional ‘driving into the sunset’ conclusion, finding the middle ground between sugar-coated romanticism and morbid pessimism. The gentle cinematography and smooth editing help to tell a messy story with clarity. Just as the heteroglossia narrative is not bluntly split into two sides. It is fused into one whole story, offering multiple interpretations of the same event.
There’s surprisingly little attention paid to the son of Nicole and Charlie’s collapsed marriage. Despite being the catalyst in the couple’s feud, young Henry rarely seems troubled by his family tearing apart. Interestingly, it’s the parents who lay crying to their son over the divorce – not the other way around. In this way, Baumbach avoids narrowly blaming the parents for ‘traumatising’ their son’s childhood, as many movies tend to cliché. Empathy is evoked for the parents (even if they get on our nerves sometimes) because they are still trying their best.
What is perhaps most remarkable about Marriage Story (besides Baumbach’s level of detail and control) is the acting. Johansson and Driver deliver some of their strongest performances, despite it being a fairly ordinary plotline. Johansson’s aggravated monologue – filmed almost entirely in one shot – is believable for its lack of staged choreography. Similarly, as Driver cries out in a fit of brutal insults, we feel the tension resonating around the room. They are whole, realised characters – developed and layered from start to finish.
Marriage Story is a quiet tragedy, dodging the bullet of pretension while keeping its artistic flair intact. Splintered with comedy, the intimately-humane drama is powerful and compassionate. Marriage Story is guaranteed to stir both tears and chuckles, and is definitely worth watching on the big screen before its Netflix release on December 6th, 2019.
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Drama | USA, 2019 | 15| 15th November 2019 (UK Cinema), 6th December 2019 (Netflix) | Netflix Original | Dir.Noah Baumbach | Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta.