TIFF REVIEW – ‘Marriage Story’ is surprisingly funny, profoundly moving, and tragically heartbreaking

Cinema has been showing us the ugly side of divorce for decades now. Whether it’s brutally on display in something like Kramer vs. Kramer or deceptively hidden in a film like Mrs. Doubtfire, the collapse of a marriage is only further complicated when children are involved. Saturated with intimate pain no doubt elicited from his own divorce, writer/director Noah Baumbach offers a deeply personal work with Marriage Story; one of the year’s finest films and one of the most emotional experiences you will have in a cinema in 2019.

Surprisingly funny, profoundly moving, and tragically heartbreaking, Marriage Story is a supreme mix of laughs, fury, frustration, and tears in practically every single scene. By the film’s conclusion, you’ll likely feel as if you’ve just travelled the path of this divorce yourself, but that’s merely a testament to the absorbing power of Baumbach’s work.

With a brilliantly crafted screenplay and career-best performances from its two award-worthy co-leads, Marriage Story is perfectly balanced, wisely never seeking to demonise one party over the other. The temptation will be there for you to “pick a side,” but Baumbach won’t allow you to. Or, at least, not for too long. Featuring a narrative that consistently exposes both the good and bad of each party, Marriage Story supremely captures the perilous complexities of the destruction of a relationship in the 21st century.

Marriage Story begins with our protagonists Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) each rattling off a list of the qualities they love about each other. She gives great presents. He loves being a father. She makes people feel at ease. He cries in movies. She knows when to push him. He tolerates her mood swings. It’s a sneaky setup that paints the pair as the perfect couple. Then the gut-punch comes; the lists are actually an introductory mediation exercise set by a couples counsellor to begin their divorce proceedings on a positive note.

Charlie is an acclaimed director of a New York-based theatre company with Nicole, a one-time future Hollywood star, as its leading lady. For years, Nicole turned her back on a screen career for a life on the stage under Charlie’s tutelage. After their separation, she accepts an offer to star in a television pilot in her hometown Los Angeles, taking their 8-year-old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson) along with her.

While the pair were determined to make their divorce as clean and amicable as possible, Nicole hires high-powered divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (a spectacular Laura Dern), a typical pitbull L.A. lawyer, known for her ruthless tactics. With her career flourishing, Nicole isn’t leaving L.A. anytime soon, forcing Charlie to constantly jet back and forth between California and the play he’s developing in New York to spend time with Henry.

Needing Californian legal counsel himself, Charlie hires laidback attorney Bert (Alan Alda) to represent him in the divorce proceedings. But as Nora starts to twist the screws and begins to paint Charlie as an absent and uncaring father, he soon realises Bert has no chance against such a viper of a lawyer. Turning to the equally vicious attorney Jay (Ray Liotta) to hit back, Nicole and Charlie’s hopes for a peaceful split soon begin to evaporate.

Without the need for a single cliché flashback moment, Marriage Story keenly manages to relay the intimate details of Nicole and Charlie’s relationship, creating a wonderfully rounded perspective of where it all went wrong. During Nicole’s first meeting with Nora, Johansson delivers a firecracker of a monologue (her Oscar moment) where Nicole recounts the blissful early days of her relationship with Charlie and how consistently putting his career desires before her own began to eat away at her happiness.

Rather naively, Nicole fails to realise Nora is mentally storing all this information to use against Charlie once the divorce proceedings reach a courtroom. Earnest or not, Nora creates a space where Nicole feels safe to unleash feelings, frustrations, and secrets she’s clearly been holding in for years. It’s in these moments we empathise with her plight, as a portrait of Charlie begins to emerge as that of a controlling and selfish artist with no regard for anyone but himself.

But it’s when these details are unfairly used against Charlie and we see Nicole has a tendency to selfishly cast herself as the victim that our sympathy swings back his way, especially with how restrained and tolerant Driver plays these moments. No matter how exacerbated Charlie becomes at custody proceedings he’s clearly losing, Driver’s performance remains tightly controlled. It’s what makes Charlie such an endearing character and the charismatic Driver is the perfect choice for such a role.

Unsurprisingly, an explosion finally occurs in a scorching argument (one of his Oscar moments) where the pair release their fury on each other, laying bare the emotions they’ve both kept bottled up for far too long. It’s a scene so emotionally wrought and frighteningly furious, it typifies how toxic a relationship can become when two people tiptoe around their true feelings rather than be honest with each other. It’s obvious Charlie and Nicole once deeply loved each other, but the hostility displayed in this one moment is genuinely unsettling.

At the heart of Marriage Story are two characters so fully dimensional and rounded, every moment here feels so incredibly earnest and genuine. Despite only just meeting Charlie and Nicole, you feel like you’ve known them for years. You’ll likely recognise yourself and your spouse (either current or former) in both of them and empathise with the pain of their relationship breakdown, whether you’ve been through a divorce or not. And if you have experienced a divorce, the film will obviously work on an entirely different level.

Baumbach wisely keeps the balance of sympathy equal throughout, offering up new narrative tidbits about either Nicole or Charlie to keep us from steering too far in our support for one side of this divorce. Marriage Story keenly plays by the old adage there are two sides to every story. As we learn more about each of those sides, Baumbach unveils Charlie and Nicole’s failures and flaws that contributed to the bigger picture of their separation. Never seeking to turn either into the bad guy, these details simply make these characters more human. Yes, we can’t help but be frustrated by them sometimes, yet somehow we still adore both of them.

That’s a testament to the stunning and finely tuned performances from Driver and Johansson, who have both never been better. Given their careers, that’s certainly saying something. While both characters have a tendency for narcissism and selfishness (they are both artists, after all), there’s an infectiously endearing quality to Charlie and Nicole that springs from the performances from our two leads. Of course, they’re both deeply flawed characters, but that’s merely what makes them so relatable.

While Charlie is a doting father and terribly lovable, he doesn’t realise the smothering effect he’s been having on Nicole for years, inadvertently trapping her in a life in New York she never wanted. It’s in the moments where Charlie is made to grapple with his behaviour and the resentment Nicole now feels for her ex husband that Driver’s performance truly comes to life. It’s a brilliant mix of passive aggression, deep frustration, and total exhaustion that makes Driver’s work here something beyond his previous roles and worthy of a nomination from the Academy. And maybe even a win.

Matching Driver at every turn is Johansson, who hasn’t been offered such a meaty role in years. Portraying Nicole as both steadfastly strong and cripplingly vulnerable, Johansson delivers a nuanced performance that’s a captivating portrait of a frustrated wife and an adoring mother who finally wants to focus on her own happiness. Johansson’s monologue in Nora’s office is downright masterful, as Nicole travels a calamity of emotions while recounting her history with Charlie. It’s here we see Johansson’s raw talent that’s been underused in the series of Marvel films she’s been stuck in for the past few years.

But for all the tense hostility, there are moments of charming hilarity to balance out the darker elements of this tale. In a sequence of wondrous absurd humour, Nicole rehearses the moment her sister, Cassie (the ever-reliable Merrit Weaver) serves Charlie with divorce papers, which the overthinking Cassie handles woefully. It’s a moment which shouldn’t be humorous, but Baumbach finds the hilarity in such a serious event. Likewise with a sequence where a stone-faced social worker (Mary Hollis Inboden) visits Charlie to observe his interactions with Henry that spirals out of control in ways you cannot possibly imagine.

And then there are the moments of quiet heartbreak that will draw plenty of tears from an audience. Whether it’s something as subtle as Nicole absentmindedly deciding what Charlie will have from a lunch menu during a meeting at Nora’s offices or an intimate moment where she cuts his messy hair like she did when they were married or the simple yet powerful ending that leaves a mighty impression, it’s hard not to have your heart shattered by the personal and intricate work of Baumbach to capture the complicated process of a divorce.

In every moment of Marriage Story, there’s the inescapable fact Charlie and Nicole still care for each other. But the inherent nature of divorce proceedings pushes once-peaceful exes towards far more aggressive behaviour. Much of that pressure comes from Nora, expertly played with ferocious fire by Dern. She too gets her own Oscar moment, in a brilliant monologue pointedly calling out the blinding imbalance of the way society views women during divorce battles.

It’s painfully obvious Baumbach’s personal life has spilled over into Marriage Story. He clearly cares for both Charlie and Nicole. By the end of the film, you will too. Therein lies the magic of such a masterful piece of cinema. Both a devastating portrait of divorce and an absorbing tale of survival, Marriage Story is a modern-day classic, deserving of all the adulation coming its way this awards season.

Distributor: Netflix
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Wever, Azhy Robertson
Director: Noah Baumbach
Producers: Noah Baumbach, David Heyman
Screenplay: Noah Baumbach
Cinematography: Robbie Ryan
Production Design: Jade Healy
Music: Randy Newman

Editing: Jennifer Lame
Running Time: 136 minutes
Release Date: 6th December 2019 (Australia)