Marriage Story

Review by Johannes Black

Listening to his father’s fifteenth studio-album, Blood on the Tracks (1975), Jackob Dylan (the estranged child of Bob and Sara) recognised it as “my parents talking”: a conversation in lyrics between two people once so familiar. His remark is, of course, belated, having only properly understood their divorce with the hindsight afforded by time; and yet, by contrast, the simplicity of his phrase reminds us of how such damage is registered in the mind of a child. Henry Barber (Azhy Robertson), the child of Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, might have understood his parents’ divorce in a similar way. He is conscious of his pendulum swing between their two embraces, the confusion of life distilled into a sort of civil war.

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver play the turbulent couple in Marriage Story.

The narrative of Dylan’s album, much like Baumbach’s film, is of course just one side of things; tilted, and hardly a univocal measurement of their heartbreak. Marriage Story is partially inspired by Baumbach’s divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh, as well as that of his parents; a story of two people falling out of love into nowhere, a devastating and harrowing event yet to unfold. Charlie is a successful director of amateur theatrics and a New Yorker through and through, lean and tall as if borrowed from Woody Allen’s Manhattan in many ways. His wife, Nicole, is a former teen actress who now plays the lead in his productions and yearns to return to her home in Los Angeles. Unable to reconcile their differences, the two reject counselling in favour of marriage lawyers; the python-like Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) hired by Nicole and Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta) used by Charlie. Their participation, ironically, brings an air of theatricality to the proceedings, one ugly and turbulent in every aspect.

Marriage Story is far more calibrated than his other works which, recurrently, seem to be underpinned with their own brand of cynicism.

Tuning characteristic elements of his prior films (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding and The Meyerowitz Stories most evidently) Baumbach again pursues familial ties, disappointment, and the polished, New Yorker-esque shine of his ‘everyday people’. Marriage Story is far more calibrated than his other works which, recurrently, seem to be underpinned with their own brand of cynicism. Randy Newman’s animated soundtrack, largely confined to the piano, boosts such a promise with every note played, lending softness to the remains of the day. One might compare his use of music to Baumbach’s evident inspiration, Ingmar Bergman’s 1974 classic Scenes from a Marriage, only here more minimal and quieter throughout. 

Marriage Story deserves all the praise it has inevitably received, especially for the understated performance of Johansson. Her sunshine personality battles so evidently against the encroaching frontiers of divorce. Of the two, Nicole is the more empathetic, even if she is less understood. In short, it’s undoubtedly one of the best films of the year.

Marriage Story is now streaming on Netflix.

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