Noah Baumbach’s mature drama on the tensions and trials of marriage charts the marriage and, ultimately, divorce story of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver). Baumbach, a lasting force in American independent cinema, has delivered yet another strong, achingly painful meditation on human relationships. Nothing is off the table as separation becomes real and brutal for the pair, their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson) is in the middle, and the family homes and money all become collateral. Whilst it is a typical Baumbach film- well-made, sporadically funny, and often found poking holes in family and romantic ties- Marriage Story feels like it may be a peak for Baumbach, a pinnacle of excellence in all its painful glory.
The opening sequence of the film sets the audience up for the final fall of separation, divorce, and acceptance, with Nicole and Charlie both having monologues about what they love about each other. As if told to us, the audience and marriage counselor become one. Johansson and Driver project a deeply loving bond that still lingers between them, and they both have intentions of making things work in some way or another. However, almost instantly we see frustration bubble but it initially feels like lashing out that won’t go any further. When it becomes more apparent that both Nicole and Charlie are living in each other’s pockets, in life and work, the lines begin to blur so subtly and the frailties in their relationship are continually exposed.
Marriage Story is at its strongest when it is exploring the unmitigated frustration and longing of a heartbreaking split. Driver’s performance is stand-out and is likely to generate attention from the Academy come awards season, and he is joined by strong turns from Laura Dern as lawyer Nora Fanshaw, who fights tooth and nail for Nicole to come away as the victor in the divorce. Though reality shows us there are rarely victors in a divorce, Baumbach brilliantly builds up confusion and miscommunication between the couple and uses their sons’ innocence to force palpable tension. How relatable the couple is fluctuates over the course of the film as the narrative exposes both Nicole and Charlie as wealthy artists with a sense of entitlement apart from their upcoming that they aren’t willing to compromise on and, by contrast, the pair become more strikingly human in loud arguments and brutal fights. Perhaps this is where Marriage Story is so successful: at its loudest. The more confrontational Charlie and Nicole are, the more relatable they become.
And yet, the legal battle of the film is vital to exhibiting the complications suffered by a couple going through a divorce with both parties intent on remaining amicable and congenial. The introduction of attorneys muddies the waters with Alan Alda to Driver’s Charlie and Laura Dern to Johansson’s Nicole, and a strained yet seemingly reasonable conclusion is on the cards. Never able to materialize, Driver finds he must get dirty as he begins to feel the pressure put on him by Dern to speed up the process, thus replacing Alda’s approachable Bert Spitz with Ray Liotta’s aggressive character Jay. From the get-go of his introduction, hardline attorney Jay symbolizes desperation for Charlie as it seems not only is his son and his wife slipping away from him, his professional life becomes increasingly threatened. Though neither Nicole or Charlie are good or bad, both have their flaws exposed to each other in ways neither seem ready to face.
There are so many poignant scenes within Marriage Story, from the striking fight scenes to the awkwardly comedic visits from social services to the damning courtroom brawl between Liotta and Dern. A brooding image of Driver holding divorce papers incoherently served by Nicole’s sister Cassie (Merritt Wever) is shown, having just arrived at his in-law’s family home away from his New York comforts, and he is thrown to the lions. Panning around the interior of the home, we see pictures of the couple framed and magazine clippings of their joint theatrical successes such as their company ‘Scenes From a Marriage’. A homage to the miniseries by Ingmar Bergman in 1973 of the same name, Bergman’s influence on, Baumbach’s film is clearly noted, the Swedish maestro an expert on examining human relationships. Marriage Story represents Noah Baumbach letting go of any alleged pseudo-intellectualism that has perhaps plagued his previous films ever so slightly; now there is an adult tenderness and truth present, genuine and empathetic.