Marriage Story

 

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Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver shine in a tale about a crumbling relationship.

 

Marriage Story 

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver

 

There is much that is excellent in this film by Noah Baumbach and it is unquestionably a work that ought to be seen. Nevertheless, there are times when it is less effective than the hugely positive early reviews had suggested, but let us leave that for the moment. As writer and director, Baumbach offers a deeply sensitive study of a couple caught up in divorce proceedings. She is Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an actress who left L.A. and a promising career in popular but undistinguished Hollywood movies because her husband was based in New York; he is Charlie (Adam Driver) who has made his name as an avant-garde stage director and is now being invited for the first time to bring one of his productions to Broadway. The gap between these two backgrounds seems to have been bridged by Nicole taking on leading roles in Charlie’s plays and they now have an 8-year old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). But, beneath the surface, Nicole feels that she has put aside her own ambitions to play second fiddle to Charlie and his work. Despite a passing infidelity by Charlie, there is no doubt that they still love one another, but Nicole’s sense that Charlie always puts his needs and his career first has, as the film opens, brought them to the moment when they are pulling in different directions to such an extent that to divorce seems the only thing to do.

 

Whether or not influenced by Baumbach’s own divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh in 2013, Marriage Story is a considered and detailed portrait of the couple’s predicament made with the same seriousness of purpose and the same concern with everyday realities that marked Richard Linklater’s 2014 masterpiece Boyhood. The film starts with divorce already in the air but with the couple intent on handling it as amicably as possible. But then Nicole is advised to appoint a high-class lawyer to represent her, this being Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern). This inevitably leads to Charlie bringing in a lawyer too, and he consults both Jay (Ray Liotta), another high-powered figure, and the more sympathetic Bert Spitz (Alan Alda). Because we recognise the depth of feeling that remains and feel too the impact of the separation on young Henry, what ensues is at heart a tragedy, yet it also plays out with an element of ironic comedy. Marriage Story charts all too persuasively how lawyers, who should be there to help, are in fact likely to raise the stakes and thereby destroy any chance of a divorce remaining amicable: a court hearing will become inevitable and add to the sense of conflict. All of this is handled here in a way that makes the film seem true to life just as the deep but troubled relationship between Nicole and Charlie never strikes a false note. This is not a unique achievement (indeed a more modest British film opening soon, Pink Wall, is equally successful in this respect) but, for all that, such depth of conviction is rare and Driver and Johansson (she especially) bring it off superbly.

 

But there are also my reservations to be considered. They do not prevent the film from working as a whole but it is the case that I find certain parts of it less effective than the rest and that applies especially to the last two sequences in the film. As it happens I can make my point here without giving away how the film opts to conclude. We are given a scene with Charlie in New York which is totally unexpected although, given his background as a man of the theatre, it is certainly not impossible: it finds him in a club taking a microphone and performing a song by Stephen Sondheim. Since this is of substantial length and since the song, one of Sondheim’s most memorable, describes the married state as being both desirable and a source of great pain it seems to sum up the theme of the film. Borrowing so heavily and so crucially from an outside source in this manner may seem a bit questionable, but it comes over as a highly original and effective way to end the film. Except that it doesn’t end it: after a fade to black Marriage Story disconcertingly continues with one more scene. The fact that this additional bit seems sentimental and also contrived (it brings the film to a kind of full circle) adds to the sense of letdown. Until this point Baumbach has avoided sentimentality just as he has wisely refused to take sides between his two central characters (it is, however, the case that throughout its length the film has veered between scenes that neither need nor get musical accompaniment and others that unnecessarily bring in a music score by Randy Newman).

 

If this conclusion is the one real misstep, there have been one or two earlier moments in which the writing is built up and has seemed just a bit larger than life. There is also one other weakness, one not necessarily related to the film’s long running time of 136 minutes: it sustains our interest without a doubt and the seemingly inevitable course of events gives the film a sense of shape yet, even so, scene follows scene with a kind of uniform rhythm that deprives the film of any extra sense of dramatic momentum.

 

I make these points to explain why Marriage Story is less than a masterpiece, but not with any intention of discouraging anybody from seeing what is one of the most ambitious and best acted films of the year.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Azhy Robertson, Merritt Wever, Julie Hagerty, Mark O’Brien, Wallace Shawn, Martha Kelly.

 

Dir Noah Baumbach, Pro David Heyman and Noah Baumbach, Screenplay Noah Baumbach, Ph Robbie Ryan, Pro Des Jade Healy, Ed Jennifer Lame, Music Randy Newman, Costumes Mark Bridges.

 

Netflix/Heyday Films-Netflix.
137 mins. USA. 2019. Rel: 15 November 2019. Cert. 15.