The opening sequence of Marriage Story is the most beautiful introduction to a film since Up ripped our heartstrings ten years ago. The film begins with monologues by both Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) describing the reasons why they love each other. In Charlie’s eyes, Nicole is talented, infectious, lovably messy, a great dancer and a playful mother. In Nicole’s eyes, Charlie is in touch with his emotions, fashionable, competitive and constructively critical. As Randy Newman’s sweet score plays over a montage of day to day life for the couple and their son (Azhy Robertson) it’s hard not to instantly fall in love with this family.
If you are a believer in true love, then it’s probably for the best that you leave the room after this opening scene. Immediately following the splendid montage, it is revealed that Charlie and Nicole are in marriage counselling to discuss their upcoming divorce. Noah Baumbach’s tenth feature film is a brutally realistic portrayal of the consequences of falling out of love.
Based in parts on his 2010 divorce to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, Noah Baumbach delivers his most personal film to date. A tale of a battle for child custody runs the risk of potentially vilifying one half of the marriage. To his credit Baumbach makes sure that neither Charlie nor Nicole are painted in a perfect light. Charlie may have given Nicole a platform to become a star in his New York plays, but he never took work in LA so Nicole could be closer to her family. Nicole promised Charlie that lawyers wouldn’t be involved in their divorce only to go back on her word when persuaded by a scene-stealing Laura Dern. For every right in the lead characters there is a wrong. Their relationship has been torn apart from a lack of communication and a refusal to admit failure at any stage of their marriage.
Charlie and Nicole are fleshed out entirely during the two hour plus running time. The key ingredient to the film being a success is that neither of them are faultless. In fact, both are in the wrong. It’s clear that they are still in love with each other, sadly that love isn’t made for a marriage. The combined force of Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson together results in two of the best performances on screen this decade.
Adam Driver has quietly proved himself to be an actor up there with the greats. At only 35 years old, Driver has the ability to turn any film he’s in into a masterpiece. From his glorious cameo where he sings a country space song in Inside Llewyn Davis to when he was robbed of an Oscar for BlacKkKlansman last year, everything Driver touches turns to gold. Kylo Ren despite all the doubters is in this writer’s eyes the best villain Star Wars has created.
Despite all the mesmerising performances Driver has given over the years (he’s also in The Report out now), he gives his best one to date in Marriage Story. Charlie isn’t a hard character to play, he’s a normal guy. Yet, it never feels like anyone else could do a better job than Driver. Everything from Charlie’s humour to his frustration as his circumstances feels authentic. The theme of isolation that hovers above his head is painfully honest. Watching his attempts to keep it all together when he’s on the brink of losing his child is heart-breaking. A scene towards the latter stages of the film where Charlie sings a Sondheim song to his friends in a bar is the high point of Driver’s career. If Marriage Story is any indication he’s only getting started.
Scarlett Johansson has done herself and her publicity team no favours recently with some of her statements on Woody Allen and her controversial casting in films such as Ghost in the Shell. It’s easy to forget in the midst of all this that she’s one hell of an actress. This is a woman who created one of cinema’s greatest romances using only her voice in Her. The past few years have seen her strays outside of the MCU resulting in films below her – anyone remember Rough Night?
Marriage Story is Johansson’s reminder to the world that she’s a force to be reckoned with. Nicole holds the first act of the film on her shoulders as she investigates legal options for her impending divorce. When she meets her new attorney played by Laura Dern she comes to the realisation that perhaps her marriage was worse then she realised it was. Nicole was prevented from living her dreams throughout the duration of her time with Charlie as he only did what was best for him. Seeing Nicole finally do what works for her is at times brutal, but through Johannsson’s performance it’s hard to argue that her actions aren’t justified. With both Marriage Story and Jojo Rabbit closing her 2019, we may be about to see Scarlett Johansson pick up some golden statues.
Noah Baumbach’s filmmaking here sees the director perfect his craft. At times in his previous dramas, the director got restricted by the low stakes of his features. While all his movies are thoroughly enjoyable they all felt they were lacking a little spark for them to be masterpieces. For the first two acts of Marriage Story the tension between Charlie and Nicole rises and rises as they fight for custody of their son. When they both reach their boiling point in act three it results in a scene that will leave you with goosebumps as the two scream at each other for the mistakes they made during their marriage.
Both Driver and Johannson put everything into the scene. Each insult they throw at each other stings to the core. This is where Baumbach proves to the world that he is an elite director. A scene as powerful as this one is seldom seen in films, yet it would not have any bite if Baumbach hadn’t rose to it with the slow build of what came before. Whatever Baumbach does next he will have the entire world watching with anticipation.
Marriage Story is this generation’s Kramer vs. Kramer. Where that film lacked in portraying both sides of the marriage equally, this film excels. If you’ve ever thought of doing something that would destroy your relationship, watch Marriage Story. The choices you make will impact your life and your partner’s life forever. Once you’re done watching the film go home and talk to your partner. Noah Baumbach’s message to you is to communicate. If you don’t it will result in the most painful experience of your life.