“Life with you was joyless”Review by Lily Taylor
I loved this film and I don’t say that lightly. It’s one of those movies where you could say nothing much happens but the characters are so well developed that you fall in love with their performance. Marriage Story follows an American couple going through a divorce under the masterful direction of Noah Baumbach, it’s as simple as that. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson star as Charlie and Nicole Barber, he is New York theatre company director and she is the star of his show. The pair live in New York with their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson) and initially plan to have an amicable, lawyer-free divorce.
Nicole moves to Los Angeles with Henry to be near her family and star in a television pilot, while Charlie remains behind in New York as his play is moving to Broadway. Despite previous agreements Nicole hires a pretty cut-throat divorce lawyer, Nora (Laura Dern), which forces Charlie to do the same if he wants any chance of retaining shared custody of Henry. As you can imagine, Charlie and Nicole’s relationship suffers greatly during divorce proceedings and Charlie in particular struggles to protect his relationship with Henry.
I think I could watch Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson inhabit these characters forever. They both put in absolutely perfect performances in this film. You can see the respect they have for each other dissolves as the film goes on. What stuck with me most is how raw the emotion was in this film. The pair fight with such bitterness that at one point Charlie wishes Nicole would die before he breaks down on his hands and knees. I watched this scene with my jaw hanging open because Adam Driver’s performance, in particular, felt so real and so wrought with emotion that I couldn’t look away. He also performs a song near the end of the divorce in front of his theatre group and I reckon it was done in just one take because the song isn’t at all perfect but is so emotive.
The film makes an interesting commentary on how biased courts are against fathers in a divorce with Charlie having to move to LA in attempt to share custody, despite the fact that the family had been living in New York together before the divorce. He is also forced to cover part of Nicole’s legal fees as well as his own and has to use his MacArthur grant money to cover this, instead of investing it in the theatre company. The couple remain largely civil outside of court but their lawyers seem to fight increasingly dirty going after both money and more time with Henry.
At the start of the film the pair are asked by a relationship mediator to write about what they like about each other, Charlie reads his out in therapy but doesn’t get to read Nicole’s until a year after their divorce when Henry finds the paper in her room. Hearing the pair talk about the small features that they’d fallen in love with and how happy they’d once made each other and then watching a relationship that was once special, devolve into spite and bitterness at the hands of their divorce is heartbreaking. Having said that, although the pair have parted, they do succeed in keeping their family together. I loved that this film didn’t take sides, there was no one person to blame and even though Charlie had cheated it was seen as a symptom of their relationship breaking down, not the cause of it. The ending is so bittersweet as the couple manage to remain friends, in a sense, but the viewer has been privy to their darkest moments along the way.
Marriage Story is fantastic and I think both Driver and Johansson have exceeded themselves in their best performances to date.