Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story introduces us to Charlie Barber, played by Adam Driver, a successful theatre director and Nicole Barber, played by Scarlett Johansson, a Hollywood actress-turned small scale art theatre actress. The pair are happily married, and we are ushered into the story with compliments and praise for each other’s perfect share in their perfect marriage. Awwwh.
Except it isn’t a perfect marriage. The opening montage was nothing but lies, adapted from the lists written by each of the characters while they attend marriage counselling. Except, the counselling isn’t working. The marriage is broken. Nicole, tired of Charlie’s ego and self centered behaviour, has checked out.
Her rescue comes when she is offered a role in a television pilot in her home of Los Angeles, and she departs Charlie’s theatre company to live with her amiable mother in West Hollywood, taking their son – Henry – with her. Despite promises to resolve the marriage in an adult and friendly way, Charlie is shocked to discover that Nicole has arranged for divorce hearings with her new and cutthroat lawyer, Nora – played perfectly by Laura Dern.
On the back foot, Charlie tries to find his own lawyer before the deadline is up, while juggling his theatre company and trying desperately to spend time with his son between trips back and forth from New York to Los Angeles. As the tension rises and court looms, the two sets of lawyers fight aggressively and – most notably – they fight dirty in their attempts to complete the divorce and divide access to Henry between the parents. It’s a fight to the death.
Except, it isn’t. In another shock twist, the truth is that Charlie and Nicole.. still love each other. The divorce tears them apart, but the pair share moments of joy amongst the pain – in some scenes holding it together for Henry’s sake, but in others, just venting pure, instinctive emotion. It’s honestly quite something.
Marriage Story is, frankly, a masterpiece. Part of its charm is that the environments and characters move and act like they were on stage, moving from room to room as the camera hangs back and lets them move in the scenes. Every character has a moment to shine, with long monologues and emotional outbursts that just feel so real. It’s no surprise that the reality of divorce hangs heavy on not only the characters – but on the actors themselves, and indeed the whole story is based heavily on Baumbach’s own experience.
Laura Dern and Scarlett Johansson have both been through multiple divorces – and it’s a true testament to the film’s realism that Laura Dern’s portrayal of Nora is in fact based on a real family lawyer that supported them in their own divorces.
There is no true protagonist, we see the reality of the family tearing apart from every angle. We see, and feel, what Charlie and Nicole are going through – with the film dragging the viewer back and forth with who their sympathies should lie with, although, ultimately, I was absolutely on Charlie’s side, but maybe that’s just me. Maybe the film lends itself to different perspectives.
In either case, Marriage Story’s sharp wit and dry tone was enough to hook me in – and I’m blown away. This one’s a winner – and it’s available on Netflix, so there’s absolutely no reason not to see it. Grab some snacks and put this on. You won’t regret it.