Stage director Charlie (Adam Driver) and his wife, actress Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson), have decided to split up. Matters get complicated when Nicole moves back to LA with their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), leaving Charlie to his work in New York. The couple promise to be amicable in their separation but the divorce proceedings turn increasingly bitter, callous and personal.
Opening with a heart-filled montage of a married couple with their child, each detailing why they love the nother in voiceover narration, ‘Marriage Story’ sets itself up to play with the heartstrings and does so instrumentally up to the very end. The film is punctuated by alternately tender and amusing little moments such as the struggle of putting Henry to bed, and the babysitter adjusting her belt when the parents arrive home early. But there are micro-aggressions and emotional jabs as well, looks across the room and tears. Thus Noah Baumbach (‘Frances Ha’, ‘The Meyerowitz Stories’) successfully constructs ‘Marriage Story’ as a reflection on life, a contemplation of all those little moments that make up individuals and their relationships with one another.
Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are truly phenomenal in the leading roles, the latter’s standout moment coming early in the film when she tells her lawyer, Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern, brilliant as always), about meeting Charlie and how they were great “for a while”, until their careers changed and now she lacks independence and self-worth. Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan expertly pares the camera back in the scene, leaving Johansson space to unravel. Much of the rest of the film switches to Charlie’s perspective, arguably because Nicole has hit right on the head what is wrong with the marriage from her perspective and how she feels about all these changes so succinctly in that scene alone.
Charlie struggles to express himself and his motives come across as more selfish than Nicole’s. As the pressures of the divorce mount on him, his behaviour towards his son turns hardened, even though he still loves Henry immensely. While Johansson gives a knockout performance, Driver is also compelling and has the harder role to play, being less sympathetic. Aside from Dern, there’s a great supporting cast between Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever who offer fresh perspectives on the separation and provide comic relief. Ray Liotta is less interesting, though still entertaining, mostly because his character is a big-shot lawyer who bosses around and shouts about the place.
Easily the most compelling divorce story since ‘Kramer v Kramer’, ‘Marriage Story’ is also definitely among Netflix’s top 5 movies to date. It’s long, but doesn’t drag. It’s sharp and heart-rending with several humorous and compassionate instances. Its subject matter could easily turn repugnant but because the love and care between Charlie and Nicole is so obvious, it’s impossible for your heart to not pour out for them. Baumbach has penned two well-rounded characters, flawed and real, and both trying so damn hard. The casting of Johansson and Driver was an inspired choice and there's no doubt that even if they don’t get awards recognition for this film, taking on these complex, beautiful characters will long stand to their careers.