Nominated this year for eleven Academy Awards, Marriage Story portrays two people who really care about, respect, and love each other, and yearn for a “gentle” amicable divorce resolution. They also are determined to nurture and nourish their young son, Henry, with as little wounding as possible.
Written, directed and produced by Noah Baumbach (of “Squid and the Whale”, another excellent film about divorce), this film eviscerates what happens in even the best-intentioned divorces, reminiscent of the classic 1979 film “Kramer vs Kramer”.
Charlie (Adam Driver) is a very competitive, driven theater director whose wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) has substantially contributed to his recent success. As the leading actress and idea-generator for this theatrical company, Nicole loves witnessing the accolades and fame Charlie is garnering, including receiving the prestigious MacArthur grant. (There are parallels to last year’s hit, The Wife, here.) Until she doesn’t.
Neither character is portrayed as overly narcissistic (although Charlie comes close) but both are flawed. While the viewer comes to understand and empathize with both of them wanting to pursue their dreams, we see the character arcs change radically. The hoped-for amicable divorce proceedings turn very ugly when lawyers get involved.
This is an emotionally raw journey into trying to figure out how to be an independent adult and survive alone. It is so grief-stricken in impact that it is as if the viewer’s observing the psychological amputation of the couple’s former selves.
Charlie and Nicole’s assumptions about each other were lovingly expressed while they were a couple, and are now weaponized. What they had been fond of in each other’s character, turns into deep wounds and grievances.
The cast is phenomenal. Adam Driver offers a transformative, heartbreaking performance that may surprise many. Scarlett Johansson is his equal, playing a broken woman who wants the best for her family, but can no longer hope for her marriage to change. Their performances are as intertwined and nuanced as they are fragmented, and they play off each other with rarely seen chemistry.
Marriage Story is a delicate dance and dialectic of vertiginous rage and devastating miscommunication, weaving together themes of loneliness, heartbreak, and regret acutely reflecting the imperfect and painful nature of human relationships. An unnerving capture of the complexities of character and the dissolution of a marriage between two loving people, Marriage Story will become a classic allegory for us all.