Call me naive, but I believe in marriage. Even when statistics indicate divorce is on the climb, I still like the idea that a nuptial knot stays tied forever, and death is but a temporary separation until the other catches up. Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, however, drew my attention to how truly fragile a marriage can be.
It seems the writer/director has continued to hone his observation of family dynamics after making The Squid and the Whale (2005) and The Meyerowitz Stories (2017). Even though these earlier family-centric films have earned him several awards at the Sundance and Cannes Film Festival respectively, Baumbach chose to persevere in this direction. Why? Perhaps to bring more clarity and compassion to anyone in circumstances similar to those of his characters.
He is also the latest filmmaker, after Martin Scorsese and Ryan Murphy, to make his work available on Netflix. This choice makes his intentions clearer. Baumbach is leveraging on Netflix’s reach to bring his work to a wider audience in the hope that his intimate knowledge of the human heart may be useful to viewers.
Marriage Story is about Charlie Barber (Adam Driver), a director of a Broadway theatre, and his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), a Los Angeles movie actress turned Broadway actress. It follows their beautiful, yet flawed, relationship. As family routine settles in, Charlie increasingly displays a lack of support and attention to Nicole. This leads her to choose career progression over marriage, which inevitably strangles their relationship. She files for divorce, thus beginning the gruelling process of untying the nuptial knot.
The theme of divorce isn’t new. It has been tackled in different ways over the years. According to our subeditor, Marriage Story isn’t so downright depressing like Kramer vs Kramer (1979), nor so horribly ugly like War of the Roses (1989). Instead it lays bare all the little bits and pieces that hold up a marriage and how we can never take them for granted.
Baumbach started the movie by giving us Charlie’s and Nicole’s respective accounts about why they loved each other. It was touching, funny and beautiful, and had some of us going, “wait, these people can’t be in the midst of divorce proceedings”. Then we learn that those accounts were an exercise conducted by marriage counsellor as part of the mediation process. We are left crestfallen, yet hopeful that they’ll still get come out of it in one piece.
Further to Baumbach’s sharp observations, Marriage Story is also compelling because of excellent performances, beginning with the veteran supporting cast of Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty, Laura Dern and Ray Liotta. And Johansson, with pools of tears welling in her eyes, steps out of superhero mode to express the fully human emotions of a woman fighting to be given a chance to establish her identity and pursue her own goals.
But the cast who takes it home is Driver. Kudos to him, Charlie exudes a nonchalance and charm that make his character believable. His unwitting intelligence as a director, infinite patience as a father, and living in the bubble moments as an individual. Driver also gave his fair share of comedic and emotional performances. And the scene where he had the heart-pounding argument with Nicole cast a heavy cloud over the cinema. It felt like no one dared breathe.
Marriage Story isn’t simply a movie about a good relationship turning sour. It highlights every scruple, regret and self-doubt of anyone who is in the process of divorcing. Even as the protagonists fall into a point of no return, Baumbach’s sensitive treatment makes this film a gift of insight and compassion.
Marriage Story was first screened here during the 30th Singapore International Film Festival. It launches on Netflix on 6 December.