A heartbreaking portrayal of divorce (Marriage Story review)

From Noah Baumbach (director of The Squid and the Whale) comes Marriage Story. Another sublime comedy drama, it tells the story of a coast to coast divorce in a film that is a masterpiece of brutality.

Charlie Barber, a successful theatre director, is married to Nicole, a successful actress. After giving up on marriage counselling, they begin the destructive process of divorce, made more complicated by their son Henry. As Nicole begins acting in LA but Charlie continues directing in New York, their relationships are tested as they continue the divorce process from opposite sides of America and their patience for each other deteriorates. I admit, this doesn’t sound funny. And it really isn’t, the subject matter is tough and brutal. And yet, Baumbach has found genius wit and comedy within the tragedy, masterfully blending the two tones into a complex emotional journey.

The cast is led by Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, and both of them deliver career-best performances. Both Driver and Johansson are tragically tied up with major franchises (Star Wars and Marvel respectively) which has limited their ability to exercise their considerable talent, but in these roles, they utterly excel. Johansson has several long takes that are well over five minutes where she’s delivering beautifully emotional monologues with utter ease, and this naturalistic perfection is something rarely seen in the MCU. Similarly, Driver, who plays the baddie Kylo Ren in Star Wars, has a phenomenally dry sense of humour, yet his anger when needed is equally terrifying.

One key scene that stands out in the film is a moment of severe conflict between Driver and Johansson. In it, their anger and attitude slowly bubbles up to boiling point, and their horrifically brutal and tense battle between love and hatred becomes one of the most compelling scenes of the year, if not the decade. No CGI, no music, nothing but two actors and an unbelievable script. It’s tear jerking movie making at it’s absolute finest, and yet it’s a perfect scene that is rarely seen in cinema.

Other cast members include Laura Dern and Alan Alda as Nicole and Charlie’s respective lawyers for the divorce, and their characters have a lot of fun conflict. Dern is a sharply manipulative player, while Alda is a much softer old man, and the two are brilliant opposites in these roles. Also starring are Julie Hagerty (Airplane) as Nicole’s mother (who at one point admits she’s “64 and has a dead gay husband”); Wallace Shawn as Frank, a member of Charlie’s theatre group; Ray Liotta as another lawyer; and Merritt Wever as Cassie, Nicole’s sister. A key notable actor is Azhy Robertson who plays Henry the son, and he is a fabulous young man who has a clear comedic sensibility but can also really tug on the audience’s heartstrings.

The story is pretty simple but is propped up by beautiful moments and scenes. These include the decision on who gets to do the trick or treating with Henry, a funny knife trick going horribly wrong, and an utterly sublime rendition of the gorgeous song “Being Alive” from Stephen Sondheim’s musical ‘Company’. Though they sound random, these vignettes are beautifully tied together by a tale that is utterly grounded. Baumbach used his own experience of his divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful 8) and this breakdown of a director/actress marriage is clearly the main inspiration.

The score by Randy Newman adds his own usual mix of melancholic and upbeat heartwarming tunes, and a slightly condensed aspect ratio gives the whole film a slightly more trapped and tense feel. Blend that with a masterful script and two actors performing their absolute shoes and socks off, and you have a film utterly worthy of every praise a critic can throw at it.

5 stars 5

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