Directed by Noah Baumbach
Review by Iva Apostolova
With the summer season upon us, the silver screen once again becomes dominated by adventure flicks, action movies or sequels (think the next installments of the Guardians of the Galaxy, The Meg 2, Fast X, Mission Impossible, the list goes on). Don’t get me wrong, I love some hi-fi action with special effects bursting from every corner of the big screen! But while the multi-million-dollar franchises are, by design, for sheer entertainment, my nostalgic craving for something quieter got me clicking through several streaming channels. To my delight, I landed on an original Netflix movie that I intended to watch when it first came out, right before Christmas in 2019, but never actually did. Directed by the indie phenomenon Noah Baumbach (holding writing and directing credits for such indie cult classics as The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Squid and the Whale and, my personal favourite, the screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox), Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in the title roles, with the talented Laura Dern and the legend Ray Liotta as the two divorce lawyers. Apart from the delight of seeing the now late (sob!) Ray Liotta on the big screen again, the movie is a hidden gem in its own right.
The plot is as simple as it is multi-layered. Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are both domestic and professional partners. Charlie is a theatre director and co-owner of a small theatre company off Broadway, and his wife Nicole, once a Hollywood child star, is the main actress in all Charlie’s stage productions. Until one day when Nicole decides that she has had enough and files for divorce. It is not immediately clear what has brought this change of heart, especially given that there is a child in the mix. What may add to the puzzlement is that the movie opens with Charlie and Nicole narrating what they love the most about the other.
From this point on, the story follows with enviable realism the psychological ebbs and flows of the process of dissolving a marriage: from the original betrayal, real or imaginary, through the snowballing practical difficulties, to the persistent heartache so deep and unexpected that it threatens to dissolve one’s own sense of personal identity. While one may fool oneself that there is always a villain and a victim, Marriage Story convinces that in every partnership, it indeed takes two to tango. What was really interesting to me was that at one point, Marriage Story makes a reference to another cinematic masterpiece, the classic Scenes from a Marriage: while visiting Nicole in Los Angeles, Charlie looks through the framed pictures on the wall in her house and sees a newspaper clipping of when presumably their own theatre company staged Scenes from a Marriage in New York. My theory is that this scene was Baumbach’s subtle nod to the inspiration for his own movie – Scenes from a Marriage explores the journey of a couple through marriage, divorce and then a re-coupling of sorts.
The original, semi-autobiographical Swedish mini-series from 1973 (six episodes in total) was written and directed by the legendary Ingmar Bergman. Following the success of the mini-series, Bergman turned it into a theatrical play and later into a long movie which received many accolades, including a Golden Globe. In 2021, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain reprised the roles of the original Johan and Marianne (in the American version, Jonathan and Mira). Although I always preach going back to the original source, I have to admit that the 2021 adaptation of Bergman’s masterpiece was nothing short of brilliant – it haunted me for weeks. But where Bergman is relentless in his dissection, episode after painful episode, of the human heart, leaving his viewers as raw and aching as his protagonists, Baumbach has opted for a more heartwarming and at times even humorous depiction of the evolution of romantic love. Where Scenes from a Marriage leaves both characters desperate, vulnerable and longing for something else, Marriage Story ends with a glimmer of hope for the poor battered human heart.
Running time: 2h 17m
A Netflix original movie
Iva Apostolova is a professor of philosophy at Dominican University College.