Marriage Story London Film Festival review

★★★★★

Directed by #NoahBaumbach

Starring #ScarlettJohansson, #AdamDriver, #LauraDern

Film review by Nathanial Eker


Divorce is a frequent device in mainstream Hollywood. Crazy Stupid Love, It’s Complicated, Mrs. Doubtfire, and countless others utilise it as a hurdle; an obstacle for the protagonist to overcome; an anthropomorphised antagonist. Terms like ‘custody agreement’ are thrown around as foreboding third act bombshells resolved by vague legal loopholes or spontaneous changes of heart. Where other films care little for the monumental financial and emotional implications, Marriage Story provides an unflinching look at the modern divorce. Director Noah Baumbach assaults the audience with an un-tempered view of the brutal legal system and its transformative impact on those unfortunate enough to suffer its bureaucratic wrath. In just over two hours Baumbach expertly crafts devastating drama, authentic human conflict and a depressingly real relationship, broken beyond repair.


Charlie (Driver) and Nicole (Johansson) have a perfect life, on paper. A successful director – actor duo with a charming little boy and a quaint but homely New York apartment (considering housing prices!); their middle-class bliss is enviable. However, as we quickly learn, they’ve decided to end their marriage. When Nicole moves back to L.A and meets with ruthless family lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Dern), their once amicable intentions quickly dissolve into a bitter custody battle that profoundly changes who they are, once were, and will be.


Marriage Story’s script is devastatingly true-to-life. Charlie and Nicole are both intelligent and amicable; the kind of friends that couples dream of inviting to dinner parties. Baumbach, with an unmatched eye for tension, torturously places us as the voyeur, praying we never have to endure such trials. Combining arguments that escalate realistically with an increasingly intrusive camera, we can do nothing but watch as civility is thrust into the wall by Driver’s clenched fist. The dialogue is sharp tongued and black witted, reflecting the laughable, obtuse complexities of the American legal system that inevitably devolves into a game of ‘he said-she said.’ Baumbach’s commentary is overt and cutting, though he also cleverly identifies the reasons behind such legislation, forcing a theme of perspective throughout.


Impartiality is another clear intent. Despite questionable decisions, neither Charlie or Nicole are framed as villainous; we’re instead forced to feel conflicted, much like their young son. Marriage Story’s commentary on gender roles is equally impartial; the legal odds are heavily weighted against Charlie, but at the same time the higher standards of behaviour of women is illustrated with equal elegance by a seductively manipulative Laura Dern. While the film is a portrait of a relationship left for dead, it also willingly comments on the expectations of people, and the metamorphosing effect of trauma.


Excellent directorial choices and script aside, Marriage Story would amount to little more than a solemn romantic comedy if the performances of its leads weren’t uniquely believable. Fortunately, Driver and Johansson are in a word; faultless. There isn’t an inch of hesitation as both immerse themselves into the husk of deceased love, crafting electric chemistry and an unmatched portrayal of loss and despair. This stanch, raw emotion slowly builds to an explosive final exchange that uncomfortably forces the audiences to relive every regrettable, hurtful comment they’ve made to a loved one; it’s a finale that is part weep inducing, part self-flagellating. Fortunately, the film does mercifully offer moments of levity, lest we all leave entirely disillusioned by the promise of unattainable love.


Marriage Story is more than a film; it’s an act of penance, an experience in self-reflection, and a cautionary tale of the cruelty of lost love. In an era of superheroes and villains, the simple reality of the expiring heart of a relationship once brimming with life and love is eminently more powerful, more touching, and more thought provoking. The gripping narrative moves neither too quickly or slowly, building to an inevitable, powerful final act that is tenser than any horror film. Baumbach’s genius positioning of the audience as the voyeur, the child of divorce unable to influence the destructive events as they unfold, exemplifies the powerlessness of the staggering number of unfortunate children caught up in such affairs. Driver haunts. Johansson stuns. Marriage Story is an unfailingly honest examination of human interaction and one of the best films of 2019.



#NathanialEker