Most films about human relationships start at the beginning, when the promise of what’s to come is unknown and exciting, but there aren’t many that deal with the end of those same partnerships. If they do, it’s usually a full stop on a story the audience has seen unfold, but Marriage Story – the latest from director Noah Baumbach – starts there. It’s not so much interested in the way two people come together as it is in the way they fall apart.
The film deals with the uncoupling of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver), an actress and theatre director who share a son, as the former seeks a new life in California and the latter clings to his established world in New York. We meet them at the end of the road, after any talk of reconciliation has been hashed out and dismissed, and the following two hours see them work out the details of their separation.
Contrary to that description, as well as what may be assumed based on the premise, Marriage Story is as much a comedy as it is a devastating drama. A lot of that comedy is mined from terrible situations, but it’s this ability to blend tones that ultimately makes the film feel so honest.
Supporting characters like Laura Dern and Ray Liotta’s opposing lawyers make the film work as well as it does, but there are also moments when Driver especially demonstrates how funny a performer he can be when given the right material. One sequence involving a pocket knife during a visit from the social worker is a truly brilliant piece of physical acting and is as transfixing as any of the emotional moments that precede or follow.
The opening sequence in which Charlie and Nicole both speak on what they love about each other, released almost wholesale as the film’s first teaser trailers, is our first clue that Marriage Story will play with perspective and bias, and there’s an unspoken sense throughout that we’re witnessing an interpretation of events, rather than any kind of objective truth. The pair are unreliable narrators both on their relationship and in its breakdown.
Which side you come down on depends on your own personal experience, but Baumbach gives both of their perspectives the time they deserve. This isn’t a film with an opinion.
It is an actors’ film, however, and one that features perhaps the best work of both Johansson and Driver. It’s so universally understood at this point that these are two of the best actors working today that it’s almost tempting to take for granted how truly terrific they are here. The material demands a lot, but they both so readily commit to all of its beats. There’s more than a whiff of the theatre in how the camera so often focuses on them for an uncomfortable amount of time, simply allowing us to watch as we would if they were right in front of us.
One standout moment, and one of many that involve one long, unblinking take, features an actual musical number from Driver as he taps into the emotional vulnerability that sometimes only musical theatre can get to. As any theatre nerd – which Charlie is – would know, when words aren’t enough on their own you just have to sing it out.
One common criticism of Netflix’s new push for prestige cinematic content is that it will fundamentally impact the way this new crop of films is watched. While in some ways Marriage Story could be considered a perfect fit in that it’s small and intimate in scale, it’s also so specific in the way it frames the characters or in the rhythm of its storytelling. It’s not a film that should ever be watched in the background.
Many have called this Noah Baumbach’s cinematic meditation on his own divorce, but that feels like an oversimplification. Marriage Story achieves that tricky feat of being both ultra-specific and universal in the feelings it explores, the cruelty and kindness it puts on display, and the often mundane and frustrating parts of people choosing to divide their baggage into two separate piles instead of a single shared one. To misquote 500 Days Of Summer, it’s not a love story, but it’s still a story about love.
Marriage Story is out in select cinemas now and will be available to stream on Netflix from 6 December.