Film Review: Marriage Story
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is somehow tragic, comedic and uplifting all at once. Its relentless depiction of a fractured relationship takes its power from its story being so simply, and uniquely, human. Excellent casting and a razor sharp script, coupled with subtle direction and complex characters, makes for Baumbach’s most compelling film yet.
The feature begins with the level-headed Nicole, played beautifully by Scarlett Johansson, and the magnetic and egotistical Charlie (Adam Driver) listing the qualities that each admire in the other. As such, we begin the dissolution of a relationship by first being shown why it once worked.
We then follow the jumping timeline through an increasingly malignant and destructive court case, framing the evolution and dissolution of Charlie and Nicole’s relationship. However, despite the unfolding of the case into an increasingly hostile separation, it is not a film that encourages the choosing of sides. There is no sense of Nicole versus Charlie, but rather of two vulnerable people being swept up in a malicious system. Nicole’s lawyer Nora Fanshaw, played by the incomparable Laura Dern, heightens tensions with her relentless degradation of Charlie’s character, as Nicole’s exhaustion with the whole process, exacerbated by hurt over Charlie’s infidelity, allows her lawyer to take over the case. The lawyers follow their carefully competitive process which is, as noted by Charlie’s lawyer, a careful deconstruction of a relationship; of a life. Marriage Story reveals the absolute hopelessness and lose-lose affair of divorce in its current system. It is a story that highlights the impossible process of a split; one in which hostility and resentment is encouraged by wickedly intelligent lawyers.
One of the most unique aspects of Baumbach’s film is its complex depiction of separation. Despite the love that lurks perceptibly beneath the surface of their relationship, you are never encouraged to root for a reconciliation of their marriage. Therein lies the humanity of the film, there’s a blatant acceptance from the beginning that the two protagonists have outgrown each other, or rather grown into each other and are in resolute need of disentanglement. There is a resignation from the opening scene, despite its beautiful sentiments, that their separation is inevitable and neither Nicole nor Charlie cling to their marriage. Rather, they grasp at those elusive and fractious pieces of the life they had built together: their son, their home, the remnants of their life.
There is something magnetic in Adam Driver’s performance. The culmination and emotional climax of his performance peak in his rendition of “Being Alive” which is inexplicably captivating, despite using only intonation and hardly perceptible shifts in expression to offer such a resigned sadness.
While Adam Driver is charismatic, charming and consuming, Scarlett Johansson offers one of the most arguably impressive performances of her career. She is foundational. She anchors Adam’s passion, she heightens the emotional impact of the film by suppressing it.
Similarly to Johansson’s performance, the film is subtle yet strikingly emotionally charged. A resentment and poignancy lingers, but only spills into anger or a passionate sort of sadness on rare, powerful occasions. But the true power of this film comes in the form of resignation; of resentment and in a poignancy that undercuts and flows through the performances of the quietly desperate Charlie and the solidly stern Nicole.
Thanks to the script and stellar performances, the film contains scenes so naturally fluid that I had imagined they were improvised. The emotions were so real and human I forgot I was watching a film. As such there is something captivating about this subtlety and humanity. I almost felt intrusive, as though I should not be privy to the tragic intimacies of their separation.
As such, it is unsurprising that Marriage Story is up for 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actress, Actor and Supporting Actress (Laura Dern). Netflix’s Marriage Story is a uniquely human, complex and endearing amalgamation of tragedy, humour and love which deserves all the accolades it receives.
Aisling MacAree – Former Features Editor