Thursday 12 December 2019

Film Review: Marriage Story

Netflix pulls out the big guns for a big awards season release, with Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern and Merritt Weaver starring in Noah Baumbach's terrific Marriage Story.

Married couple Charlie (Adam Driver), a theatre director, and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), a former film actress, find themselves at a crossroads in life.

Charlie is firmly rooted in New York, where he runs a small but successful theatre company. Nicole, his muse, yearns to return to Los Angeles, to reignite her career on the silver screen. When marriage counselling arrives at a dead-end - with Nicole, embarrassed and uncomfortable, storming from the room - it seems the only way forward is for Charlie and Nicole to take separate paths.

Discussions around how they navigate this divorce, with their young son Henry caught both metaphorically and literally in the middle, is just the start of an increasingly messy and upsetting separation that escalates until it turns sour.

Inspired by his own divorce to actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, Baumbach's film doesn't strive to take sides; Marriage Story doesn't present either party as virtuous hero or dastardly villain. Nicole isn't the perfect mother, but she's far from an antagonist; similarly, Charlie cares more than words can say about his family, but he's not a hero.

It exists in the complicated, uncertain grey spaces between these two extremes, with its two lead characters engaging in an emotional tug-of-war in the middle. Marriage Story refuses to cast judgement, and tells both sides of its titular matrimonial tale, resulting in an enthralling, upsetting and raw portrayal of the awkwardness, strangeness and extremes that come with the territory when you're in love.

Revelling in this emotionally complex middle ground are Driver and Johansson, who really put it all out there in pursuit of two powerful performances. Both are already very accomplished and acclaimed actors, but this film feels like a confluence of factors that allow them to really test their mettle – armed with the wonderful wordplay in Baumbach's screenplay, Driver and Johansson gracefully navigate the melodrama and the paradoxical emotions that come with wanting to put some distance between you and someone who has remained so close for so long.

Without these two commanding performances, Marriage Story's exploration of imperfection wouldn't be nearly as compelling and tragic as it is, but the acting and emotions – from loneliness and intimate to clumsy and comedic – is terrific across the board. Supporting roles, such as Laura Dern as Nicole's hard-as-nails lawyer Nora and Merritt Weaver as Nicole's goofy sister Cassie, may weave in and out of the story, but leave a big impression.

The Verdict: 9/10

Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story is an empathic exploration of how the best of intentions can become fractured when a divorce becomes messy. Driver and Johansson both deliver some of their best work to date.

Marriage Story is streaming on Netflix now.

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