Marriage Story review: A heartfelt masterpiece
Ivan Radford | On 06, Dec 2019
Director: Noah Baumbach
Cast: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta
Watch Marriage Story online in the UK: Netflix UK
“Someone to hold me too close. Someone to hurt me too deep…” Stephen Sondheim nailed the wonder, and wonderful challenge, of human relationships in Being Alive, his closing number for the musical Company, a cynical and wistful ode to the bittersweet nature of companionship, of letting someone else into your life. Noah Baumbach manages a similar feat in his masterful Marriage Story, a film that aches with comedy and splits your sides with agony. Freewheeling from happiness to melancholy, it’s a blistering portrait of two people who, after 10 years together, decide that being alive would be better being apart.
Swinging from one emotional extreme to another is no easy feat for a filmmaker, but Baumbach is a veteran at charting complex emotional waters; ever since his clinical debut, The Squid and the Whale, he has excelled at squeezing laughter from pain and pain from affection. Over the years, that astutely acerbic observation has increasingly been joined by something else: warmth. With Frances Ha and Mistress America, his work took on an earnest, gentle, sympathetic streak, without losing its arch sense of humour. That, combined with a knack for drawing out people’s flaws, resulted in The Meyerowitz Stories, an ensemble piece that found time to share in everyone’s emotional trauma.
All of this builds beautifully, impeccably, to Marriage Story. A film not just about a divorce, but about the implications, consequences, vagaries and processes of the whole divorce industry, it’s a remarkable portrait of a break-up writ large – painted with joy and love as much as resentment and regret.
The opening moments see Charlie (Driver), a theatre director, recounting the things that he loves about Nicole (Johansson), before she does the same about him. It’s a gorgeously edited montage that juggles precise details with a casual confidence that immediately conjures a lived-in intimacy, from competitive games of Monopoly to leaving cupboard doors open. It’s also a litany of things that, given time, can breed contempt or frustration – within seconds, these recollections are brutally, hilariously interrupted by the couple’s refusal to share them during a therapy session.
And so the lawyers come in, helping to pull our couple even farther apart, all the while talking of amicable resolutions. Laura Dern is deliciously good as a shark-like veteran of the circuit, needling and manipulating her way to what she thinks is best. The notion of lawyers working in their own interests, not those of their clients, is only reinforced by Ray Liotta as an equally ruthless lawyer. Both, though, are upstaged by Alan Alda’s more honest lawyer, Bert, who basically tells Charlie to give up and make the most of the complimentary doughnuts.
“We have to prepare to go to court to avoid going to court,” he says, with a wistful smile that sits somewhere between sage wisdom and serene resignation. That kind of double-speak litters Baumbach’s pin-prick-sharp dialogue, and the cast deliver it with relish.
Driver has never been better than as Charlie, a man who is too self-centred to see how he’s alienated everyone around him – he allows Nicole into his life, but not too close or too deep, and projects him as an individual onto them as a couple. Driver often manages to win our sympathy, his gangly limbs increasingly tense the more serious things get, but it quickly becomes clear that he’s not the only victim, and that he has dominated their relationship in a quietly toxic way.
Johansson is flawless as Nicole, increasingly making her voice heard while underlining how many years she’s gone through without it being audible. One single-take sequence in which she reflects on their relationship to Derry’s lawyer is a masterclass in screen acting, taking us from the hope and affection of their early days to the weariness of the present legal battle – within that speech is buried a nuanced study of the gulf between loving someone and being in love with someone, the chasm between being with someone and not being seen by someone – the kind of thing that could take up a whole film in its own right.
It’s testament to how well acted, written and assembled Marriage Story is that you’d gladly start watching that spin-off the moment the credits roll.
While Marriage Story is at least a six-cry picture, Baumbach’s triumph is how upbeat and funny he makes so much of it, even as we witness Charlie’s distant interactions with their eight-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). Two starkly different set pieces in contrasting kitchens are mini screwball farces that are choreographed to awkward perfection.
Stuffed with guffaws and – unlike the legal system – compassion for every person involved, the result is the most heartwarming, hopeful story about divorce in recent memory, a bittersweet and sweetbitter ode to the complicated mess of relationships, the reality of love away from stage and screen, told with charm, tenderness, optimism, gratitude, mournfulness, wit and perspective. By the time you hear Sondheim in a restaurant, simultaneously sincere and ironic, you’ll be in tears at how alive this film feels.
Marriage Story is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.