Film review: Marriage Story

Linda Marric loved this tale of a disintegrating marriage


Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale, The Meyerowitz Stories) charts the painful separation of a young couple (Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver at their brilliant best) in Marriage Story, an incisive new drama comedy which the director admits is loosely based on his own divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh.

Charlie (Driver) and Nicole (Johansson) are a middle-class artistic couple living in New York with their eight-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson). She is a former Hollywood teen actor who made the transition to the stage, he is a respected theatre director with his own stage company, the couple find themselves at a crossroads when Nicole is offered a role in a TV pilot being shot in LA. 

A glimpse of the couple’s former life together is conveyed through a bitter-sweet montage in which they each take turns listing all the things they like about the other. This, devastatingly, is soon revealed to be an exercise devised by a mediator hired by the couple to help ease them gently into a smooth separation.

The action is then transported to Los Angeles where reunited with her mother (Julie Hagerty) and sister (a gloriously neurotic Merritt Wever), Nicole is urged by her divorce lawyer Nora (Laura Dern in fine form) to ask for all she can get, which changes the dynamic between the former couple who had hoped to keep everything amicable.

This is a smart and deeply moving film which somehow manages to be sympathetic to both parties without ever coming across as overly sentimental or needlessly melodramatic. With moments of disarming honesty, and others of blind anger and rage, the film manages to be a true representation of what happens when communication is broken between two people who, despite everything, still care deeply about one another.

With frequent nods to his love for the theatre, Baumbach's direction is stagey in form and aesthetic. With long, uninterrupted takes and lengthy scenes throughout, Johansson and Driver deliver every agonising exchange and scathing monologue as if they were in front of a live theatre audience.

Elsewhere, musician Randy Newman (Toy Story) gives us a suitably mournful score, while the cherry on the top of this magnificent production comes in the shape of a gloriously cathartic rendition of Sondheim’s Being Alive (from Company) by Adam Driver toward the end of the film.

I have no hesitation in naming Marriage Story as one of the best films of the year, and like Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton, 1979) before it, it should define the era in which it was made. A true masterpiece and a masterclass in filmmaking from Baumbach and his peerless cast who deserve every award coming their way.

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