Film Review: Marriage Story (2019)

Written by Jasper Harris

Art, in its most basic form, was originally conceived in order to replicate life. From the first paintings on cave walls, the images created were that of real things. Plays, paintings, photos and films all have been used to allow us (the viewer) to see the artist’s interpretation of life. And so, as with all things, those artists have a choice in how accurately they would like to depict the way they see life. Sci-Fi films have the decision on whether they would like to be more science, or fiction. Action flicks have the ability to disregard the physics of a punch in order for that punch literally land harder. But the opposite is true. Some stories choose to instead show us everything, and in doing so, take a risk. There is the unfortunate potential that they trade dramatic impact for lifelike reality. Ultimately, that would make a boring film, because why go to the cinema if you can already see exactly what is on the silver screen at home? 

Divorce, like a number of subject matters, can often be a major problem for filmmakers, in that it is not a hugely cinematic topic. From meetings with lawyers to court room disagreements, there isn’t a huge amount of room for the film to, you know, be a film. Some of these movies sidestep this issue by choosing to not be truthful to the experience. I won’t name and shame, but on the whole, it doesn’t work. They end up sacrificing the emotional stead of the film, instead choosing to have more things actually happen. There is a fine line to be drawn, in most cases, in deciding between maintaining realness, or potentially losing some of your less invested viewers.

Marriage Story bypasses this problem, by assuming that its audience is intelligent enough to understand the consequences of the less ‘dramatic’ scenes. It knows that it will be able to wring the more character driven scenes for drop of emotion they have if it puts in the time and shows us the external forces weighing on each relationship. When we see Charlie’s (Adam Driver, and my pick for Best Actor) very real pain, we then fully understand what he is thinking at that time. And this is why ‘Marriage Story’ is so fantastic. It is because everything works. It truly is the story of a divorce, and in no way seems over-dramatised or falters for a second. 

The story is a simple one, and yet, so vastly complicated, much to the films credit, that it sometimes seems like an insane juggling act that only Noah Bumbach could truly pull off. Each character serves a purpose, each one revealing a different thing about the narrative, or a relationship, and ultimately growing the story from that of a divorce to a real, breathing tale of love and falling in and out of it. There is so much life in this film. It feels so real that you can almost taste the cold tea of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), or the cut on Charlie’s arm. Baumbach has a keen eye for observing life, and he really outdoes himself with this one. His ability to just show life, and not need to get bogged down by anything that other filmmakers might see as crucial is admirable, and vastly aids the films he chooses to make. 

Charlie Barber is a New York theatre director, and Nicole is his wife, and star actress. As the film goes on to correctly outline, Nicole Barber is a New York actress, and Charlie is her husband, and brilliant director. Their life, at least what we see of it before the film, seems like a happy one. They have a single child, Henry (Azhy Robertson) who seems content in the life he leads. They play Monopoly, they read together, and talk to each other, and argue with one another, and generally seem to function much like a ‘normal’ family. The drama of the story comes about ten minutes in, when we learn that the Barbers are not as happy as they seem, and that they are beginning to go through the first motions of a divorce (and so, ‘Marriage Story’). There are reasons thrown around, ranging from the insufferability of each other, to the more serious fact that Charlie had an extramarital affair, which seems to have bearing, even though it after he was already sleeping on the couch. This isn’t a fault on the part of the film. In this argument, anything and everything means something, and so long as it has the ability to be thrown at the other person’s face, it is entirely relevant. 

Nicole moves to Los Angeles to begin production on a new TV show she is attached to, where she moves back in with her mother, and takes Henry with her. This is the beginning of a number of seemingly innocent actions that Nicole does purposefully to punish Charlie. Nicole is clearly hurting, and although it is never explained why, you begin to feel that their marriage has not been a good thing for either of them. Charlie seemingly had a tendency to belittle her, and this is Nicole’s chance to hit him where it hurts.  

For clarification, Charlie and Nicole’s relationship was not an abusive one. I may not be painting it well. It’s just that after ten years of being undermined, that then ended with your then husband sleeping with another woman is enough to boil even the calmest of blood. Neither party is in the wrong here. Or rather, no party is more in the wrong than the other. Nicole is going about everything in the way she believes would be most hurtful to him (we never see her scheme with anyone, but it is assumed and implied that she is doing everything willingly), and Charlie is refusing to understand why she wishes to do this.  cannot understand how he is at all at fault, and this is yet more infuriating. You can see how the cycle goes, no? 

I am no stranger to divorce, or even marriage. In fact, as I write this, I am on my way back from a family wedding, for both of whom it was their second. There is a great joy in each aspect of love, and a deep sadness for the end of those. It is how this film portrays neither as more important than the other that makes it so emotionally brilliant. There is nothing more to be said. This film is brilliant. 

The film ends in all sorts of ways, some good, some bad. I won’t reveal anymore. I doubt that any who reads a review of mine immediately goes and sees the film, and I would bet money that ‘Dora and the Lost City of Gold’ isn’t on your watch-list anytime soon, (that film is still wonderful), but let ‘Marriage Story’ be the exception. It won’t disappoint. 

About the author

Jasper Harris

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