Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story is a depiction of divorce in all of its complexity. Based on Baumbach’s split from his wife, Jennifer Jason Leigh, this semi-autobiographical tale follows Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) as they navigate their way through separation, divorce and fighting for the custody of their son.
The movie opens with Charlie and Nicole sharing heartfelt thoughts of one another, and we soon learn that these words are from letters they have written each other for a divorce mediation session.
Charlie is a director and the owner of his own theatre company, while Nicole—once a budding young actress—is the star of his productions. While at first the separation seems amicable, this film serves as evidence that disconnection of two individual lives is anything but simple, especially when there is a child involved.
First, we follow the perspective of Nicole, who has moved to LA for an acting role with the pair’s eight-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). Her tendency to talk about Charlie in most conversations provides us with the first glimpse of her self-described immersion into his life, rather than her own. When Nicole seeks the advice of Nora (Laura Dern), a tough-as-nails LA attorney, we begin to understand why her relationship with Charlie deteriorated. In moments filled with emotion, Baumbach uses silence and subtle close-ups to build tension and draw in the audience—my eyes were glued to the screen.
Nicole’s experience speaks to the reality of many relationships: when two people come together, compromises are often made to make it work, but that’s not always enough. Nicole explains to Nora that the separation is about more than not being in love anymore, but rather that she has sacrificed too much of herself in feeding Charlie’s ‘aliveness’.
But as is the case in all partnerships, there are always two perspectives. After learning that Nicole has hired a shark-like lawyer Charlie decides to seek his own advice, finding himself face-to-face with Jay (Ray Liotta), who suggests extreme and some-what dirty measures to win custody. Spooked, Charlie finds a different opinion in the form of the empathetic Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), who remarks that ‘criminal lawyers see bad people at their best, [while] divorce lawyers see good people at their worst’.
While the case starts calmly, tempers begin to unravel as the pair become more estranged; their interactions becoming progressively more awkward and angry. We also see Charlie’s relationship with his son become increasingly strained as he tries to balance father-son time with running his theatre company back in New York. Upset that his father isn’t around more often and frustrated with being sent between homes, Henry acts out—understandably.
Although the film centres around the legal process, it’s really a story about the exhausting, emotional and destructive nature of divorce. By the end of the film, we have witnessed our tempered couple explode at each other and completely breakdown; and it’s both utterly moving and heartbreaking.
In one of my favourite scenes, Nora discusses society’s acceptance of absent and imperfect fathers, and our complete unwillingness to accept the same faults in mothers. She remarks that the system only accepted the idea of good father’s thirty or so years ago. Laura Dern is an absolute queen.
Scarlett Johansson is utterly radiant as Nicole, as she fights against her desire to comfort Charlie in order to discover herself and follow her passions. However, it’s Adam Driver who steals the show. Delivering a completely captivating performance of Stephen Sondheim’s ‘Being Alive’, his incredible talent is on full display.
Marriage Story is a brilliant, heart wrenching depiction of divorce. From the very first scene, I was glued to my seat, and despite the 137 minute run-time, it held my undivided attention until the very end.
Marriage Story is out on Netflix today.