Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a captivating look at a marriage and the sometimes unfortunate outcomes for a married couple. Starring Adam Driver as the brilliant theatre director, Charlie Barber, and Scarlett Johansson as his actress wife, Nicole Barber, the film explores the tumultuous effects divorce has on the couple, and how it pushes them to their emotional breaking points in every aspect of their life. It’s a hard dose of reality, beautifully wrapped up in a charming and powerful script, which is also backed by truly moving performances.
The film opens in a slightly different and intelligently deceptive way, with narration from both Charlie and Nicole, who describe the qualities they love in one another. It provides quite a calm and soothing ambience for the audience as they listen to the sweet words the husband and wife say about one another. Plus, it is supported by equally sweet visuals of these qualities on display, alongside seeing them with their son, Henry. On the surface, they look like a perfect couple, one that makes up for the others faults/weaknesses, but we quickly realise it’s not all sunshine and rainbows.
Marriage Story’s greatest strength is in the way the script withholds information, ultimately leading to powerful and shocking moments that audiences do not expect. Once Nicole and Charlie’s narration ends, we suddenly see the couple in a room, distant, and Nicole is visibly upset. It’s also made clear the list of positives the couple reads during the narration was a list they were forced to make because of a mediator, but it’s one Nicole refuses to read to Charlie. The sudden switch of emotions in the opening perfectly highlights the great qualities in the script, luring you into a state of comfort before suddenly making you ask, “why is this happening?” in less than ten minutes. It’s one of the many ways the film constantly tugs on the heartstrings.
Both characters are well written, and neither one is made to be more likeable than the other. They both have qualities that people can love, but equally, they are so obviously flawed and riddled with traits that make you dislike them. It’s another way the film captures the essence of real-life while challenging the audience on an emotional level. We can relate to Nicole’s frustration with Charlie’s controlling nature, yet when Charlie struggles to continue his relationship with Henry because of having to travel, we sympathise with him too. It’s almost as if the characters are vying for the audience to back them, and the audience is torn between who they should choose, a feeling that will certainly hit home with children of divorced couples as well.
Of course, both Driver and Johansson deserve an incredible amount of praise for their performances. They both display their character’s varying emotions with great subtlety and expertly add more and more layers of frustration as the story continues to unfold, which makes the eventual blowout between the couple all the more impactful and heartbreaking. Driver, in particular, shines in this scene as his once calm and composed character unleashes a tirade of cuss words and statements that not only seem uncharacteristic but beyond what people may expect from Charlie. Much like the film, Charlie and Nicole are not unnecessarily loud, making the verbal battle all the more effective.
Marriage Story is also supported by some really strong cinematography, helping showcase the heartbreaking separation. There are some effective close-ups and more symbolic shots, such as when Charlie holds Henry, and both he and Nicole are closing her front gate as the two are on either side. It’s not only a potent shot showcasing their inevitable separation, but another devastating moment, seemingly distancing the couple from a potential reunion.
Baumbach’s film flows smoothly, is brilliantly pieced together, and is backed by superb performances, making it difficult to poke holes in it. Although, one complaint could be Charlie singing to express his emotions in the final act, which seemed to come out of leftfield and is arguably a little out of place in what is otherwise a very grounded narrative. However, that’s a small complaint in what is truly a beautiful piece of storytelling.
Marriage Story is charming, emotional, and powerful, and it’s worthy of all the plaudits it has received over the past year. Cinema is often a medium where you escape reality into a surreal and often clearly fictional world, but Baumbach’s film explores a very real piece of life in a realistic and brutally honest fashion. However, Marriage Story still manages to give you that feel good “Hollywood” ending without taking away from the real-life feeling the script creates.
Dir: Noah Baumbach
Scr: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda, Wallace Shawn
Prd: Noah Baumbach, David Heyman
DoP: Robbie Ryan
Runtime: 137 minutes
Marriage Story will be available on DVD on Monday, August 24th.