Marriage Story Review

Marriage Story
Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) are navigating the choppy waters of divorce. After Nicole and their son move from their home in New York back to her hometown of Los Angeles, the couple bring in lawyers to negotiate the details of their future family set-up and struggle to maintain the amicability they’d initially sought.

by Terri White |
Published on
Release Date:

08 Nov 2019

Original Title:

Marriage Story

“What I love about Nicole,” begins the voice of Adam Driver’s Charlie in Marriage Story’s opening seven-minute montage. “She’s a great dancer, infectious. She’s a mother who plays, really plays, she gives great presents.” “What I love about Charlie,” picks up Nicole (Johansson), “He cries easily in movies, he’s very competitive, he’s very clear about what he wants.”

Only the lightly sombre notes of Randy Newman’s chamber orchestra score — which beautifully, delicately sketches the tone of the entire film — suggests that all may not be as well as their words would suggest. Then the first gut punch of many: Charlie, a playwright and actor-wife Nicole are in therapy, working out how to split with kindness by returning to the roots of their romance.

Marriage Story

The tenth feature from writer-director Noah Baumbach is, he’s admitted, his most personal, inspired at least in part by his divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2010. With such a history, you’d be forgiven for fearing a biased telling of love gone wrong. But in Baumbach’s hands, this unflinchingly granular story of exactly what happens when a marriage ends manages to treat both its parties with fairness and empathy.

For as much as it is a story of divorce, it’s about two people who have lost the ability (and often the will) to communicate. Instead, as they negotiate a bi-coastal custody situation — Nicole wants to live in Los Angeles, Charlie in New York — they pay lawyers to take their voices and speak for them. The professionals expertly carve out and remove why they loved each other in the first place, risking their humanity in the process.

Resists the darkness of the subject through a light, zippy script that delivers more zingers than many out-and-out comedies.

The most devastating articulation of this is a two-hander that takes place in Charlie’s sparse new LA apartment — shot over two days with just one camera — which is written, blocked and performed like a play. They snipe, they scream, they sob on their knees, the camera moving closer, tighter on their faces as the sparring spirals.

Driver and Johansson give performances as precise and powerful as any two you’ll see on screen this year (Driver delivers a version of Stephen Sondheim’s Being Alive that will be remembered as one of 2019’s great film moments). And truly unexpected delights lay in the supporting cast — with particular mention for a now typically on-fire Laura Dern and beautifully-deranged Ray Liotta as opposing lawyers.

The biggest surprise, however, is the film’s thick seam of humour. This is a movie that resists the darkness of the subject through a light, zippy script that delivers more zingers than many of the out-and-out comedies put out this year. The influence of screwball comedies To Be Or Not to Be and Twentieth Century — that Baumbach looked to for inspiration — are fully felt. The laughter lending a wonderful levity to the sadness that sticks.

Marriage Story manages to be one of this year’s best thrillers, comedies and romcoms all at once. A tender, taut gem of a film that will make you reconsider love and loss.
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