Writer Director Noah Baumbach returns to the subject of his first film, divorce. But whereas the Squid and the Whale definitely favourite the children’s perspective, Marriage Story focuses on two reasonable, believable adults who have stopped wanting to be together. Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) wishes to live in Los Angeles and pursue a television career. Charlie is a theatre director who wishes to stay in New York and invest all of his time, energy and money into his theatre company. Nicole doesn’t feel listened to or respected. As she tries to break away out west, the couple find their commitment to an amicable separation threatened, especially when lawyers get involved.
What is extraordinary in Marriage Story is the nuance. It’s the relatable characters and the subtle cinematic style and compelling writing that keeps you engaged with the narrative. As the process gets messier and messier you are at once drawn into the heightened emotions and stakes of the drama but also appalled that such misery is befalling characters you’ve been made to care so deeply for.
Scarlett Johanson and Adam Driver are extraordinary. The chemistry and tension they achieve is immaculate. Both characters are so well developed and their needs and disappointments are so clear that it becomes tragically inevitable that they fall apart as they do. It’s their love for each other and their frustration at not being able to work it all out that leads to the vitriol that fuels some of the movie’s tragedy. The opening montage of their happier moments not only grounds these characters in a solid reality but establishes traits that will be crucial to the events of the film, whilst being too purely joyful to feel like the exposition dump it actually is.
Laura Dern is also excellent as the family lawyer who seems designed to walk the fine line between empowering best friend for Nicole and duplicitous devil on her shoulder. It’s a perfectly ambiguous performance from Dern, full of just enough insincerity to make her motives questionable. Alan Alda is also excellent as the somewhat beleaguered old timer who’s gentler approaches are tragically ineffective.
Yet amidst this wonderful and believable dynamic between these two failed lovers, there is an element of artifice that is a little off putting and very characteristic of Baumbach. Some cliched characters like Ray Liotta’s Jay Marrotta or some awkward comedic relief care of Julie Hagerty’s Sandra. These aren’t unpleasant elements, they just feel out of place. They are indie movie cliches which have mired some of Baumbach’s other work. However it would be disingenuous to say that this affected my enjoyment of the film. It’s merely a mild distraction.
A newspaper article about the couple bears the name “Scenes From a Marriage” and it is interesting to compare Baumbach’s film with Bergman’s masterpiece of misery. Certainly Nicole and Charlie are more amicable than Marianne and Johan but no less believable. Both films interrogate the cold depths of separation but whereas Bergman finds only hollowness, there’s a tragic warmth to Baumbach’s divorce. The two still love each other and always will. They just can’t be together without being miserable. Ultimately the film still leaves you smiling and with just a little hope.