A love story centred around a divorce
“Criminal lawyers see bad people at their best, while family lawyers see good people at their worst” – a well known saying in the legal profession, that perfectly summarises the overwhelming emotional turbulence of Marriage Story when it gets quoted onscreen. Director Noah Baumbach seems to alternate between a dyspeptic, unrelentingly cynical worldview and something altogether quirkier on a seemingly film by film basis, looking at the lives of New Yorkers in disarray through sharply contrasting lenses that heighten what would otherwise be instantly recognisable struggles. With Marriage Story, he completely drops this facade, delivering not just the best film of his career, but one of cinema’s all time greatest break up movies.
The offbeat humour that characterises Baumbach’s work isn’t exactly absent from this project, but the laughs dry up as the film progresses, and the semi-autobiographical nature of the film becomes increasingly apparent. Inspired by his divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh, which ended in similar circumstances, Baumbach doesn’t attempt to absolve himself of any guilt in this retelling, instead probing deep into a fragile subject and offering a distressingly believable look at how two kind hearted people can be forced into conflict even when they only want the best for each other. It’s as close to the works of Asghar Farhadi as any western filmmaker has ever managed, methodically guiding the audience through the machinations of a legal system that aims to only complicate separations, even if both parties are on the same page.
Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) would have been a major movie star, but instead, she fell in love with theatre director Charlie (Adam Driver) and moved to New York, exclusively acting in his theatre company’s off-Broadway productions. The pair have been growing apart for years, but for the sake of their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson), Nicole wants to make the divorce process as pain free as possible. Unfortunately, she hires a divorce lawyer (a deliciously savage Laura Dern) who rarely caters for such a process, and begins a legal battle that brings their son to the centre. They have no bad blood between each other, but when thrown into routine divorce proceedings that involves the matter of custody, their rarely spoken opinions on how best to raise their son come to the fore – and begin to shape the direction of their future relationship for the worse.
Marriage Story isn’t a revised version of real events designed to make the Baumbach surrogate look good; although Charlie is, admittedly, characterised as a charming and successful genius, his weaknesses (from a short temper to his extramarital affair) are constantly placed under the microscope. The film never takes sides, extensively sharing the frustrations of both parties with an innate sense of empathy, proving to be heartbreaking simply as Baumbach never lets the audience forget that these are two people who ultimately just want to make the process easy for the sake of their young son. The film opens with an extended montage, soundtracked by a couple’s therapy exercise where both Nicole and Charlie have been asked to list the things they most like about each other. In the film’s most heartbreaking sequence, Charlie falling to the floor in tears after a particularly heated argument, Baumbach perfectly illustrates the irreparable damage of going through this process with somebody you don’t have any real negativity towards – the theatricality of proceedings causing nice people to aim for each other’s throats.
Johansson and Driver both give career best performances, with Driver being particularly impressive, showing a vulnerable side to his offbeat screen persona that is genuinely revelatory. Baumbach’s screenplay perfects the near impossible tightrope walk of complimenting the realistic heartbreak of the central narrative with more broadly comedic side characters; Dern’s divorce lawyer gets the best lines, while Nicole’s wider family wouldn’t be out of place in one of Baumbach’s screwball collaborations with Greta Gerwig. But despite the sheer disparate tones, nothing in Marriage Story feels out of place, or undermines the very realistic examination of the ramifications of a couple’s divorce. It is, quite simply, the perfect culmination of Baumbach’s very different cynical family dramas and lighter comedic efforts.
Marriage Story screens at the BFI London Film Festival at opens in the UK on 15 November
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