One of the hardest things for Hollywood to get right when dealing with real-life dramatic material is the sheer normality of it. Most of us don’t go through life hot-headed and having dramatic life affirming moments filled with snappy dialogue. Yet Marriage Story, a movie about a couple going through a divorce, manages to mine the comedy and upset that comes in the small moments lived every day.
Nicole (Scarlet Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) are a couple out of love. When we meet them they are friendly but going through mediation and separation, leading to divorce. They are conscious of their 8-year-old son, Henry, and are resolved not to use lawyers. Yet some aspects are bubbling under the surface. The family had been based in New York as Charlie runs his theatre production company with Nicole often starring. But when she is cast in a TV pilot and takes Henry with her to live in Los Angeles the coast to coast family stretch means that point-scoring sneaks into their ongoing divorce.
Director Noah Baumbach masterfully controls the pace of Marriage Story. The opening scenes are narrations from both Nicole and Charlie about all the things they love about the other, intercut with footage of the moments they shared. In a few minutes, we get a great shorthand for both characters, before we cut to realising that they are doing this under the instruction of a mediator and the process isn’t working.
The first act focuses on Nicole, and is a showcase for Johansson’s ability to show her thinking process. Marriage Story gifts the actors with long scenes full of great and normal sounding dialogue. So when Nicole tentatively meets with a lawyer, the length of the conversation is more her talking herself round to accepting that her feelings are legitimate, Johansson’s expressiveness is a window into her mind. “You will ALWAYS be held to a different, higher, standard,” chastises her lawyer (Laura Dern playing insincere sincerity to a tee), and Johansson’s discomfort is a picture.
Once the point of view shifts to Charlie we see through his eyes how a divorce process can run away from you. Driver portrays the mounting frustration of how one on one conversation makes perfect sense, but the presence of lawyers and hearsay sow the seeds of doubt. “But we agreed,” he keeps protesting, losing sight of what’s best for his son by instead focusing on getting his allotted time.
Marriage Story has little in the way of directorial tricks. Instead, it gives great actors plenty of room to work, and crafts the ebb and flow of the story around relatable scenes. Yet when the inevitable (and very meme-able) massive row finally hits, its nuclear escalation reveals years of held back dark thoughts and secrets from the pair. Then you notice Baumbach’s sleight of hand. Charlie helps Nicole fix a gate that symbolically separates them. Closing scenes show Nicole surrounded by laughing family yet for Charlie, singing in a silent bar where the camera stays focused exclusively on him, highlighting his selfish nature.
For a movie about the most miserable time in the lives of those who live it, Marriage Story connects by finding the cinema in the every day. It’s a comedy-drama blend that doesn’t overdo either, with each element complimenting the other. A perfect marriage, you might say.
Words by Michael Record