Marriage Story: a slow, painful story of a slow, painful divorce

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver give the film its weight, movingly demonstrating a couple’s love for one another even as they’re falling apart.

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When audiences of the future decide to watch Noah Baumbach’s divorce movie, the question will be: which one? There’s the 2005 comedy The Squid and the Whale, brief and agonising as a stubbed toe, which cemented this writer-director’s standing and favoured clipped, scathing scenes of comic humiliation. Or there’s his latest film, Marriage Story, nearly an hour longer and no less painful, but with that pain administered in suffusing waves rather than short, sharp shocks. If the earlier picture showed how divorce can turn reasonable people into combatants and cannon fodder, the new one insists that the effort to avoid that carnage may not in all cases be doomed.

It’s an odd sort of divorce movie that has “marriage” in the title (though not the first: Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage is namechecked on screen) and which begins with each partner presenting an adoring montage of the other’s finest qualities. Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is an actor who turned her back on a Hollywood career in favour of theatre work in New York under the direction of her dazzling, perfectionist husband, Charlie (Adam Driver), the sort of man who can’t resist giving notes even at the drinks party on closing night.

Their plan was to move eventually to Los Angeles, where Nicole grew up. But now it’s many years later, they have an eight-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), and Nicole is tired of her wishes being ignored. The pair decide to separate and she heads to California with Henry to star in a TV pilot. While she’s there, she visits a laser-focused divorce lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), whose bright, minimalist office is as far from the ramshackle clutter of Nicole’s life with Charlie as it would be possible to imagine.

More than once in the film we hear the West Coast praised for its expansiveness (“The space!”), and there is something in the combination of that physical freedom and Nora’s sympathetic attention that allows Nicole’s disappointments to come cascading out in one unravelling monologue. Baumbach’s use of the long take gives Johansson room to breathe, too, and to suggest a woman surprised by the intensity of her own feelings in the very act of articulating them.

Charlie lacks an equivalent speech, a lightning-bolt moment, but then he has a larger share of the action: after the first 45 minutes or so, the picture shows the divorce largely as he experiences it in the form of a series of injustices. As Nicole’s life expands, his contracts. He is advised that if he wants to prove to the courts his commitment to Henry, he must take an apartment in LA. And he can’t consult any divorce lawyers to whom his wife has spoken, which is how he ends up torn between a $950-per-hour pink-faced tough-guy (Ray Liotta) and a cheaper, gentler old-timer (Alan Alda) who turns nouns into verbs (“Can we sidebar?”) and makes unhelpful observations (“You remind me of myself on my second marriage”).

Each day brings fresh evidence for Charlie of his new lowly status, such as the miserable Halloween where custody arrangements leave father and son no option but to go trick-or-treating late at night when the neighbourhood’s supply of candy has been exhausted. A TV horror movie seems to comment on Charlie’s life (“There will never be another dawn”) while his choice of costume (the Invisible Man) expresses his fears about the role he will now play in Henry’s future.

If Charlie and Nicole could step outside the movie, they might marvel at the drama’s seam of heartbreaking ironies, the way innocuous words and actions can be weaponised; they’re theatre people, after all. An ordinary domestic interaction is transformed by the presence of a manilla envelope overlooked by one of the characters, the whole scene choreographed like farce but with divorce papers rather than sex as the electrifying component.

And they would both surely appreciate the symmetry in the way their relationship is bookended by performances. Nicole first met Charlie when she saw him in a play in someone’s apartment; by the end of the film he is again performing in an intimate setting, only now the stage is his sparsely decorated LA digs, his co-star is Henry and the only audience member is a family court representative (the brilliant, unsettling Mary Hollis Inboden) who has come to evaluate them in their home environment.

As the bloodthirsty Nora, Dern has the showiest role, and one sublimely disorienting moment when she pauses hostilities at lunch to recommend to Charlie and his lawyer some “really yummy salads and sandwiches”, turning in an instant from shark to mother hen. It is Johansson and Driver, though, who give the picture its weight, clarifying movingly the couple’s love for one another even as they’re falling apart. Physical disparity is part of their charm. With her short hair, drowsy eyes and plump lips, Johansson is as self-contained as a teardrop; Driver’s face, truculently handsome, looks as long and lugubrious as a violin, one which knows it is doomed to play Adagio for Strings, and nothing but, for the rest of its days. 

Marriage Story (15)
dir: Noah Baumbach

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 13 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Britain was sold