MARRIAGE STORY. Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, and Azy Robertson. Directed by Noah Baumbach. Rated M (Mature themes, coarse language and sexual references). 137 min.
This American drama tells the story of a married couple, who have been married for ten years, going through the processes of separation. It was chosen by the American Film Institute and the National Board of Review as one of the top ten films of 2019, and received six nominations at the 92nd Academy Awards - yet to be decided on February 9th., 2020.
Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) is a successful theatre director in New York City, and he is directing a play that stars his actress wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). Their marriage is undergoing problems and they are advised to seek marriage-counselling which they initially reject. Nicole is offered a starring role in a television show in Los Angeles and moves to that city with her son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). The reasons why their marriage isn’t working is aired by both of them. Lawyers (Alan Alda and Ray Liotta) are hired, and Charlie rents an apartment in Los Angeles to be close to his son after Nicole moves there. Success finds both of them again, and after a distressing divorce procedure, they have a bruising, emotional showdown, and follow it with guilt-ridden signs of making-up. The film, however, implies strongly that it is most unlikely this pair will ever reconcile, despite the fact that they love each other in their own way.
The film offers an insightful and compassionate analysis of a failing marriage, and shows the pitfalls that face a couple taking steps to separate. Charlie and Nicole struggle to reach out to each other emotionally. As they struggle, the gap between them gets wider, and they find themselves unable to walk away from each other for the sake of their son. The film shows the hurt of an impossible relationship with two outstanding performances by Driver and Johansson. The viewer becomes acutely aware of the pain they cause each other, but the film is scripted and directed so that neither is allowed to bear total responsibility for what has happened. It is a relationship that has gone wrong, and both are at fault. Finally, Nicole turns to Nora (Laura Dern) a tough, blasphemous marriage lawyer who does what she can to end what relationship remains.
There is a psychological truism in the fact that when a relationship between two people comes under severe strain, fault can normally be found on both sides. The strength of this movie is not in demonstrating that truism (which it does), but focusing on how much the stresses and strains of divorce can foster negative messages and attitudes. Monologues detail what Nicole and Charlie love and dislike about each other. Charlie loves Nicole’s personal intensity and her dedication to their son. Nicole loves Charlie’s self-sufficiency, and his paternal devotion. But both are selfish. As the movie progresses, Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson brilliantly portray the power of what can be destroyed by non-communication, and demonstrate the fragility of an ebbing love for each other. Nora, the lawyer, uses her awesome skills to paint Charlie as negatively as possible.
The film is about a relationship break-up that brings the best and worst out of the parties concerned. This is a couple that worked to stay together, but tensions existed in their relationship that made it virtually impossible for them to stay together. The film masterfully conveys the messiness of human relationships that go astray, and it also loudly proclaims how a legal system can distort any intention to separate amicably. The film captures the pain of divorcing; divorce is a process, the film argues effectively that is hardly ever amicable.
The film is very well scripted, directed, and acted. It shows the complexity of human relationships under stress, with honesty and openness. But it also shows the damage caused by legal procedures that feed on negativism. Virtually no character in this film goes morally unscathed in the separation process. The challenges of maintaining a good marriage are threatened by the insidious nature of divorce procedures, and it is an emotionally challenging movie for those wanting to stay together. The final uplifting message of this exceptional movie unequivocally asserts the value of being with someone, who cares deeply enough to “make you feel alive”.
Peter W. Sheehan is Associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting