Although Marriage Story seems overwhelming and complicated on the surface, at its heart it is simply, a tale of two people falling out of love and still being there for each other.
From Brooklyn based writer-director Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story is insightful, sympathetic and tenderly bewildering. It is a bittersweet portrait of a marriage slowly imploding, of two people taking stock of their lives while trying to circumvent the trappings of a drawn out divorce and the rat race for custody of their only child. Charlie (Adam Driver) is a fairly established theatre director of the avant-garde in New York. His wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is the lead actress in his company, who has recently landed a TV pilot in her hometown, Los Angeles. They fell in love the minute they met 10 years ago and there’s been no looking back since. They are the perfect team. Charlie is a genius. He is ‘self-made’ and makes Nicole push her creative boundaries and realise her fullest potential as an actor. He loves being a Dad. Nicole passed on a movie career in LA to work with Charlie in theatre. She listens and makes people feel instantly comfortable, even about the embarrassing things. She’s the type of mom that plays, really plays. Together with their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) they are very much, “a New York family.”
And yet, Charlie and Nicole are in the middle of a separation, not quite yet a divorce. The film opens with two warm and delicate, honey glazed voice-overs of Charlie and Nicole, each narrating what they love about the other. But we quickly realise that this is part of a mediation exercise the couple have agreed to, in order to be as amiable and reconciliatory as possible and “to do this without lawyers.” In telling the story of a relationship unravelling as honestly as possible, Baumbach has ended up making a film about the enduring versatility of love. It changes myriad shapes, sizes and intensities - sometimes it even leaves, drifts straight out an open window - but not before coming back to ring your doorbell dressed in different robes.
Baumbach has a unique ability to take the most trivial truth in the room and use it to create the entire universe of a scene. He takes characters in settings that are home turf for him and makes them feel like your best friend or older brother. As Nicole puts it, “Charlie is more New York than most New Yorkers” and vicariously through him, so are you. Similarly, you instinctively understand Nicole’s yearning to return to LA and her dissatisfaction - not with being ‘married’ specifically, neither their working together nor even with Charlie himself. She is simply dissatisfied with the point at which their relationship has arrived. Like in everyday life, the marriage in Marriage Story has lived, laughed, cried and is about to change direction and form. There are some dramatic tears and even a legal battle, seemingly with no end in sight but without any feeling of betrayal or abandonment. Instead, there is compassion, a painful letting go and an enriching coming to terms, and a steady cocooning of what’s most important - the happiness of their son Henry and their individual relationships with him.
What truly puts Marriage Story a notch above however, is its carefully choreographed, theatrically staged cinematography by Academy Award nominee Robbie Ryan. His intimate close ups and their soft glow capture Nicole and Charlie at their most vulnerable, giving viewers access to what feels like a very privileged space, the camera’s gaze non-intrusive but peering. The fade to/from black scene transitions add weight to essential pauses in the narrative. This only accentuates the film’s Bergman-esque character arcs, the parts themselves played seamlessly by the two leads - unfussy and with so much heart. Laura Dern too as Nora Fanshaw Nicole’s lawyer is deliciously predatory – you may not like her, but instantly you’re drawn to her. Another notable mention is Julie Hagerty who plays Nicole’s affectionate, neurotic mother, the awkward, funny chemistry between all the characters being one of the main reasons why the film doesn’t feel like it’s about a marriage falling apart.
Although Marriage Story seems overwhelming and complicated on the surface, at its heart it is quite simply, a tale of two people falling out of love and still being there for each other – a real life ordeal, written poetically, acted powerfully and crafted with poise for the screen, Baumbach’s most complete film yet.
We almost wished it wouldn’t end.