Marriage Story is a chimaera of multiple cinematic genres, tender drama, heart-breaking romance, thriller, screwball-comedy and musical- yes you are reading that correctly, thanks to Adam Driver’s gorgeous rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s Being Alive – to create an achingly beautiful narrative, where the audience is made to be as bewildered as the couple, navigating their emotions following their separation but also through the cutthroat, confusing and cold world of divorce law. ‘What I love about Nicole’ is the opening line heard in Noah Baumbach’s latest (and finest) film, in the steadfast baritone of Adam Driver’s Charlie, echoed several minutes later by Scarlett Johansson’s (slightly) gravelly Nicole, reciprocating similar affections: “he is organised”, “she can open a pickle jar”, they are both “very competitive”. Baumbach’s beautifully and well-intended sentiments lulls the audience into forgetting the films subject matter- a divorce- and in fact, these lists are being read out in a mediators office, in an attempt for the duo to find common ground so the separation is as amicable as possible.
The film’s narrative is almost meta-theatrical, as both of our leads are darlings of the experimental theatre scene in New York, and yet the audience are the ones watching them perform, for instance watching Adam Driver brilliantly try and cope with someone watching him be a parent, to see if he is worthy of being given custody, to watching Scarlett Johansson being interviewed and questioned about what validates her to be a mother. The self-reflexive nature of the film works effectively as the moments of heartbreak, watching both characters succumb to the weight of their emotions, has us succumbing with them, but to contrast brilliantly with the very sombre subject matter, there are moments of laugh-out-loud comedy creating a deeper connection through the rollercoaster of emotions.
Furthermore due to its autobiographical nature, there were moments where the camera would follow the two leads from one room to another, meaning the film began to emit almost a documentary vibe of Baumbach’s own experience of divorce, and that made ‘that’ (almost ten gruelling minutes) fight scene, where buried feelings are revealed, in equally childish name-calling to brutal truths, hyperbolised to cut deep into the other, made the audience all the more uncomfortable as we felt like we were sharing this experience with them. This is cinema in its best and most transcendent form.
However, an electric script can only be brought to life when the actors portraying the characters spark it. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson give career-best performances, they have embodied and become their characters, and through them communicate every emotion imaginable. The audience forgets they are watching characters, instead feeling as though they are watching two real humans experience one of the worst moments of their lives. The duo’s performance is inspired as it delivers Baumbach’s emotionally fatal blows by portraying the realism of how a blissful matrimony can turn so quickly into acrimony. Driver and Johansson embrace both their characters flaws and assets successfully and do not appear to be caricatures of other stock character types within divorce flicks: the cold husband, the distant wife, the cheater. Whilst some of these are certainly true it feels natural rather than cartoonish. These feelings are gracefully coupled with clever cinematography that provides us with home-video-esque scenes, it’s simple and almost claustrophobic following the pair around their small New York apartment, it feels like we’re going bump shoulders any moment and we see their emotions in a sometimes uncomfortable closeness. Driver and Johansson are brilliantly supported by Laura Dern, as Nicole’s divorce lawyer, a fun but cutthroat lawyer who’s ruthless approach and manipulative streak cause a severe escalation in the proceedings, and seemingly Charlie’s lawyer Ray Liotta who is similarly tough and tenacious. Both are brilliant, their own cold and callous manner and their court-room dogfights are both hilarious but deliver deep blows to both.
Rarely is a film watched where the sheer amount of “Oscar Buzz” is seemingly deserved However, Marriage Story presents a contrast to that, it deserves and should receive all of the buzz. It is a beautifully told, skilfully and heartbreakingly acted character study of two people experiencing raw human emotions at the worst of times, with tenderness, comedy and yes more than a few tears. Be sure to take tissues and are well prepared for your heart to be broken.
Photo Credit: IndieWire