Forty years after the multi-Oscar winning Kramer v Kramer comes another divorce drama involving two young Americans and a son caught in the crossfire. And this one is even better.
Marriage Story is a sublime film, a heart-breaking, intimate epic. It’s written and directed by Noah Baumbach, the New Yorker whose impressive back catalogue includes The Squid and The Whale (also about divorce), Greenbergand Frances Ha. His new film leaves no stone unturned in its dissection of marital upheaval. And it features superb, deeply moving performances by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. Expect all three to feature in the awards season that’s about to heat up.
The title isn’t as ironic as it sounds, for all divorces start with a marriage. This moves back and forth in time, to show what made Nicole and Charlie a great couple to begin with, while revealing the fault-lines that will destroy the relationship and lead them towards the divorce proceedings that dominate the film.
Their partnership has also been professional – he the writer/director of a theatre company in Brooklyn, she his lead actress. It’s no coincidence that their separation comes as Nicole accepts her first TV job, in Los Angeles; her side-lined aspirations and his unwillingness to deviate from his own priorities are key to the rift.
The most painful thing is that they still love each other. And despite their good intentions for a peaceful separation, when lawyers become involved a coast-to-coast battle ensues that becomes centred on custody of their sweet, confused, eight-year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertson).
It’s desperately touching, as well as funny, smart and, perhaps most significantly, balanced. As accomplished as Kramer v Kramer was, in 1979, the cards were unfairly stacked against Meryl Streep’s wife and mother. Here there is no villain, no-one we’re expected to side with over the other.
The ensemble is terrific: Wallace Shawn as the old ham of the Brooklyn acting troupe; Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever as Nicole’s hilariously flaky mum and sister; Laura Dern, Ray Liotta and Alan Arkin as divorce lawyers of very different persuasions. “Why are women held to a higher standard,” Dern asks Nicole over the custody issue, before answering herself: “God was the father. And he didn’t show up.”
But it’s the leads who truly captivate, Johansson as a woman throwing herself at a chance for self-determination, Driver a decent man torn apart by the consequences of his self-absorption. It’s good to see that blockbuster duty (The Avengers for her, Star Wars for him) needn’t dull an actor’s instincts for real life. The pair tackle massive monologues, one truly volcanic row and the silent shorthand of a years-long bond with beautifully naturalistic performances that tear the heartstrings in an instant.
This review first appeared in The i newspaper