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marriage story review
Unable to work out the issues plaguing their marriage, a theatre director and his actress wife begin divorce proceedings.

Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Noah Baumbach

Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Azhy Robertson, Merrit Wever, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty

marriage story poster

Noah Baumbach has finally done it. After years of applying his wry brand of dramedy to tell sensitive interpersonal stories of well-off New Yorkers, the auteur has perfected his craft and perhaps made his masterpiece. Marriage Story is a near-perfect film - funny, truthful and devastating in equal doses, with writing and performances at the highest level.

marriage story review

Scarlett Johansson delivers a career-best performance as Nicole, an actress who’s just landed her big TV break in LA, an on-screen breakthrough after years of successful stage acting in New York. In this prolific period of theatre, Charlie (Adam Driver, also delivering his greatest performance yet) has worked as the John Cassavettes to her Gena Rowlands, albeit directing the plays with such fervour that’s blinded him from awareness of what she wants out of her own career, causing a rift and diminishing the possibility of them ever making their own A Woman Under the Influence.

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A stunning opening sequence exhibits two skillfully constructed montages of warm domestic life, each from either perspective, underscored by wistful anecdotes of what Nicole and Charlie like about each other. Snapping the loveliness out of our view like Thanos, Baumbach cuts to a bone-dry couples therapy session that’s wet with the anguish of the distraught, to-be-divorced couple looking down at the papers whereon they’ve wrote these thoughts. The therapist encourages them to share them out loud but the uneasiness causes Nicole to walk out of the room, diminishing the possibility of reconciliation.

marriage story review

In the middle of the increasingly messy separation is young Henry (Azhy Robertson), who’s kept from being privy of the details, only understanding that he has two homes now, one on each coast, and gets to spend more time with his cousins, aunt Cassie (Merritt Wever) and grandma Sandra (Julie Hagerty), which doesn’t look like an awful endeavour to him considering the liveliness they bring to his presence - a testament to Hagerty and Wever’s droll double act. On the other hand, Nicole and Charlie have to power through a grueling process that involves lawyers, after an initial agreement to get divorced without lawyers, and it begins to take a toll on their son too.

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Nicole enlists the help of the sedulous, slightly scary Nora Fenshaw, a role entirely owned by a tenacious Laura Dern who, like her co-stars, spectacularly bests herself. Nora is way too good at her job, simultaneously assuring Nicole that her truth will cut through in court but also making her anxious at the prospect of acquiring full custody of Henry - a deal Nicole doesn’t want, as her deep mutual respect as a parent is too foreign for a lawyer. Charlie, on the other hand, trying to juggle duties on both sides of America, yo-yos between the gentle Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) and the fierce Jay (Ray Liotta). In one of the more painfully cutting lines of dialogue of the film, Bert says that divorce is like a death without a body.

marriage story review

Baumbach’s screenplay is full of frank observations such as this one, and the relationship between a director and actress with a son is a transparent parallel to his own status as a divorcé. He was married to Jennifer Jason Leigh for eight years and has a child with her. Mining his own real life for a tragic story could have easily resulted in something crass and exploitative but his vision is healthy and clear-sighted. Having fine-tuned his ability as a dramatist, he totally evades the amateur route of making the audience root for any particular side of the marriage, deftly funneling us through an even-handed, empathic, emotional journey.

This sincere, heartbreaking and wonderfully entertaining movie is the best movie centred on a divorce since Kramer Vs Kramer, and only an impulse to avoid recency bias is preventing me from saying it's the best divorce movie ever made.

Marriage Story is on Netflix UK now.

2019 movie reviews