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Review: Marriage Story – “Profoundly intimate and perfectly human”

It would have been so easy for Marriage Story – the tenth feature film from acclaimed independent writer-director Noah Baumbach – to become blown out of proportion. Its subject matter is simply primed for melodrama and spotlight-stealing exaggeration. What we get, however, is the polar opposite. In fact, the film’s beautiful restraint and honest observation produces one of the most tender, authentic, and heartfelt portraits of a partnership – albeit one which has sadly veered from the straight-and-narrow. From the first frame to the final, this is an immense work of hallmark quality; the magnum opus in Baumbach’s definitive filmography.

We open with Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) narrating what they love about one another. Some things shared are deep and personal, others quirky and charming. The dialogue suggests the perfect couple; the perfect relationship. But it becomes quickly apparent that this marriage is already over, and that these emotive recollections are merely testimonies prepared for their counsellor. Soon, the endearing and unique traits which render them as characters will be weaponised in a war of words by duelling divorce lawyers.

The couple is based in New York – Charlie is a director at a small, but thriving theatre company and Nicole is his leading lady. She had an early film career in Los Angeles (where her family live, and where they tied the knot) but moved to the Big Apple for the stage and her marriage. The pair have a son together, Henry (Azhy Robertson), who goes through “Mommy phases” but is also fond of sleepovers with Daddy after a bad dream. Trouble quickly escalates when Nicole is offered a major leading role in a new TV pilot back “home”; locations become as contentious and powerful as emotions in this arduous break-up. The opportunity is too good not to seize, and it offers something Nicole hasn’t attained for a very long time – a project for her, not for Charlie.

Reportedly influenced by Baumbach’s divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2010 (something the filmmaker has adamantly denied, mind), you’d be forgiven for fearing a very biased account of love turned sour, but in his tactile hands, never is there a sense of siding. Both Nicole and Charlie are treated equally – their qualities and negativities highlighted with fairness and dignity. The twosome shares ample screen time together and indeed benefit from sequences solely focused on each party. This method of characterisation enables the audience to build trust in their relationship – this author totally believed that these two people had shared a life together before the camera starts rolling; a largely very happy life, too. Through the miraculous storytelling, dialogue, performances, and editing, Marriage Story masterfully underpins life and love in all its perfect imperfections.

To comment further on the film’s restraint, as mentioned earlier, a picture about divorce would surely necessitate a number of argument sequences, right? Well, no. Here we get one single scene – in which the anguish, turmoil and stress shared between Nicole and Charlie becomes momentarily intolerable. It is, hands down, the most devastating and exquisitely performed sequence of 2019. And it’s all that was needed. Baumbach’s film often steers clear from dwelling on their suffering, with many moments shared between Nicole and Charlie feeling loving and heartfelt. It swaps screaming matches for wayward smiles, or awkward glances, and their impact is overwhelming. Comedy and tragedy have always shared a very fine line, and the masterful screenplay treads it with such sure-footedness that you’re pretty much left in awe.

Words whip through scenes with gnashing teeth and radiant warmth in equal measure. When Laura Dern and Ray Liotta’s lawyers enter the threshold, the prose packs the bruising punch of a filthy street fight. Collectively, the casting is exceptional, but the duelling courtroom scenes expertly demonstrate the magnitude of a great actor with a great script; it doesn’t need to be a thriller into order to be thrilling. Equally, quieter moments maintain lofty weight, too. An early scene in which a cagey Nicole slowly opens up to Dern’s Nora Fanshaw is remarkably measured. Paired with an unbroken take following Nicole as she navigates through the corporate office, it bursts with truth and tenderness.

As you would expect from a cast of this calibre, Baumbach provides the platform for their talents to truly shine. Both Driver and Johansson are absolutely phenomenal here – the two best leading performances in a drama this year, without question. They both completely embrace Charlie and Nicole’s nuances, flaws, ideologies, and everything in between. The chemistry between Driver and Johansson is so palpable and genuine that many moments hum with the sincerity of early Woody Allen partnerships; truly feeling like a joint creative effort to convey the drama at the highest possible stature. Stellar support work from Dern, Liotta, a hilariously uncouth Wallace Shawn, and a compassionate Alan Alda round out what is an almighty ensemble.

Some have commented on the original score, composed by Randy Newman, which offers a whimsical, almost enchanting soundtrack to what is ultimately a very serious narrative. This author thinks, paired with the Oscar-deserved editing from Jennifer Lame, it ascends the drama, and indeed the joy, to new heights. This film is flooded with love and affection, despite the nastiness and remorse. The score punctuates the atmosphere and archives its fond memories with gracious efficiency.

The film is at its very best when portraying these little, but important, moments of life. Like Nicole cutting Charlie and Henry’s shaggy mops of hair, or the pair putting in huge effort to make Halloween costumes so they can take their son Trick-or-Treating. Because deep down, under the venom and pain, Marriage Story is not really a movie about divorce; it is about a life. One shared, one enjoyed, and one now caught in a conflicted, changing state.

With The Irishman, and now Marriage Story, Netflix is enjoying their finest year to date. This profoundly intimate and perfectly human film already feels like a modern classic – Baumbach has created an astonishing, exemplary work of cinematic tone, craft, and storytelling.

Marriage Story is now available to watch on-demand worldwide courtesy of Netflix.

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