Noah Baumbach’s latest release is titled Marriage Story, but do not let this title mislead you. This film is not – as it sounds – a heart-warming romantic tale, but instead follows a brutal, frank, and painful story of divorce. It maps out the messy separation of the Barbers; Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver), who share an eight-year-old son.
Johansson and Driver’s chemistry is off the charts – that’s if chemistry is the right word – as they portray a couple who know each other so intimately and deeply but are trying to push this knowledge and each other away. These roles could be so easy to overplay; to get too angry; cry too much; be too nonchalant. But somehow, their acting hits the sweet spot of both real and engaging.
Alongside this, the writing and creation of the characters is sublime. A lawyer tells Driver’s character, “divorce lawyers see good people at their worst”, and the characterisation of two very flawed individuals, with their flaws amplified under the circumstance, is brilliant.
These characters are exposited in the opening moments of the film, as the two main characters narrate what they love about each other. These characteristics and quirks expressed are not cliché or cheesy. They evoke real, messy people and lives, and Baumbach plays with these characteristics throughout the story in even the most subtle ways, making for immaculate attention to detail and exquisite filmmaking.
As many have already pointed out, Marriage Story is at least somewhat inspired by Baumbach’s personal experience of divorce, as well as the divorces of his loved ones, and this personal connection to the content only makes the film more exceptional. Divorce is not handled as a taboo but still manages to highlight peoples’ discomfort around the topic, with friends and family members unsure of the appropriate ways to act as they find themselves at the side-lines of such a devastating event.
The supporting actors, especially Laura Dern and Julie Hagerty (who play Nicole’s lawyer and mother respectively), don’t outshine Johansson or Driver but provide memorable and outstanding performances. In certain scenes, the plot does begin to stray from Nicole and Charlie – often almost becoming a legal drama – but the following scene brings it right back to the core plot; an intimate view of their complex relationship.
The film is not an easy watch. It drifts between tear-jerking and anger-inducing in seconds and never quite satisfies. But that’s the point that the film makes – even when divorce is the right choice, it’s not an easy or comfortable one. There is so much more to write about Marriage Story, but alas there is a word limit.
There has been a questioning of the legitimacy of Netflix’s cinema-quality in recent years, however, with awards season just around the corner, Marriage Story offers a great potential for recognition at mainstream film awards for the streaming service. Maybe Netflix can compete with the most elegant, clever and critically-acclaimed that Hollywood has to offer after-all. Marriage Story is evidence of this.
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