Divorce, and romantic separation in general, is far from an underused concept in cinema, especially where parental figures are involved. Films featuring infidelity and domestic spats are as old as the medium itself, and it isn’t uncommon for the splitting up of mum and dad to be the driving force of a character prior to the beginning of the actual movie. So why is Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical Marriage Story different? Because rather than using divorce as a motivation or plot device, it’s the bread and butter of the film; right down to legal details, this is one of the most realistic and devastating portraits of the process I’ve ever seen onscreen.
Essentially a character study, Baumbach tracks the already failed relationship between Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver), opening on one of two of the most heartfelt character introductions I’ve watched in recent years: each lovingly describes details of the other, with intimately shot visuals to match. But as you can imagine, this wedded bliss is quickly revealed to be a thing of the past, and thus begins the struggle between the LA bound TV actress and the artiste New Yorker as they attempt to split both their assets and the custody of their son, conflicted eight-year-old Henry. But rather than falling into a Kramer vs Kramer type narrative in which one parent is given more room to develop and gain audience sympathy, Baumbach splits the film’s running time pretty much equally. Rather than watching the spectacle of a battle of good against evil, we are witness to two essentially good people being dragged through the wringer and shown at their ugliest as they scrabble for independent happiness and the moral high ground.
This movie wouldn’t work without the central performances to hold it up, and both Driver and Johansson have thankfully given us the best work of their career in Marriage Story, showcased excellently by Baumbach via a bold, frequent use of long takes. In scenes of anger, such as one that has somewhat annoyingly been shared all over Twitter in isolation, their pained looks communicate the love they still feel, and in moments of joy, the sense of failure they feel still permeates through. But it’s in creating their specificities in which they excel; Nicole’s grabbing hands as she reaches for her son and Charlie’s frustration expressed through nervous pacing are both motifs that stuck with me. The supporting cast is also memorably brilliant throughout, the highlight, in my opinion, being Laura Dern as Nicole’s kind yet unscrupulous lawyer Nora. All of these actors will likely be up for Oscars this year, and I wouldn’t be upset if any of them one (sidenote: I’m still rooting for Lupita Nyong’o in Us).
But perhaps the most affecting and disturbing part of Marriage Story is the biting critique of the cruelty of the divorce process, and more broadly of love and hurt under the thumb of capitalism and greed. While both Nora and Charlie’s lawyer Jay have more sympathetic moments, and are usually truthful, the venom that they display in the early discussions and the courtroom scene exposes how the current legal system can legitimize some of our most spiteful impulses. Where Nicole is warned that she will be judged as a parent against an absurd standard when compared to Charlie due to her gender (expressed with outrage by Dern in Nora’s best monologue), a grant for Charlie and his theatre company is put under threat by the endless fees involved in making the playing field ‘fair’. I have no first-hand experience of divorce, but if the more bureaucratic elements are anything as nasty as Baumbach makes them out to be, I’m truly sorry for everyone who has ever been involved.
Though Marriage Story didn’t quite dethrone The Irishman as the best of the year for me in terms of purpose or scope, I admire it for its humanist, empathetic look at a relationship gone sour, and its endless depths that I’m sure I will emotionally delve deeper into upon a rewatch. We are lucky to have both of these movies on such a convenient, accessible platform, and I urge you to watch both for a small taste of the best cinema the end of the decade has to offer.