Whether they are made to entertain or inform, most films are made to provide a transporting experience, allowing the audience to escape into a completely different world for two hours. On occasion, a film pops up that wants to show the viewer something real, hoping to tug on the heart strings. Creating, what I like to call, a ‘real people film’ is one of the most deceptively difficult tasks a filmmaker can undertake, as audiences can detect simulated emotion very easily. Cinema is a simulated reality by design, so more often than not, ‘real people movies’ seem to have too much schmaltz. However, when a film comes around that feels emotionally true, it can be a beautiful, honest and powerful experience. Such is the case with Director Noah Baumbach’s, Marriage Story.
Following a difficult marriage, stage actress Nicole (played by Scarlett Johansson) serves her estranged husband and stage director Charlie (played by Adam Driver) divorce papers after moving to Los Angeles for a TV series and taking their young son Henry (played by Azhy Robertson) with her. After trying and failing to keep the divorce amicable, Nicole and Charlie hire prestigious divorce lawyers as they enter a heartbreaking battle over the custody of their son, all the while wrestling with the reasons why they got married in the first place.
In this kind of drama, the strength of the actors is paramount, as the relatable emotion relies on believable performances. Marriage Story pulls out all the stops, as every performer arguably gives the best work of their careers. Ray Liotta, Laura Dern and Alan Alada do amazing work as the various lawyers, but it’s Johansson an Driver who truly amaze. Johansson has been a superstar for over 2 decades, but even with her incredible talent, she has been relatively underrated as an actor. That perception of her is likely to change, as she is a revelation in the role of Nicole. She makes the viewer feel her soul-crushing struggle as both a victim and instigator of this martial hardship. Driver is a perfect companion as Charlie, a man who’s wrought with compelling sadness and selfish anger. Most amazingly, these performances transcend just being characters in a film, feeling like real people with all the contradictory emotions that come with it.
Speaking of contradictory emotion, Noah Baumbach’s script is a masterclass in playing with the audiences feelings. Usually, seeing a husband fail to understand his wife’s personal needs, or a wife coldly doing everything she can to make life difficult would appear vindictive. Despite this, Baumbach makes sure we empathise with every thought and every action, ensuring that we feel the honest pain each divorcee is going through. You can’t find yourself being swayed to a side, as you still see the other perspective. Even when the shocking truths and soul-crushing outbursts occur, Baumbach never expects you to cast judgement, instead trusting that you’re going to be understanding. Baumbach knows that not everyone is perfect, but even with those imperfections good people are not intentionally malicious.
Just like the brilliantly balanced characters, Baumbach successfully marries the film’s sorrowful tone with plenty of witty comedy. While the content itself is filled with dramatic realism, Baumbach knows that realism does not always mean darkness. We enjoy each character’s sense of humour and see some genuine happiness, as well as laugh at some of the absurd aspects of divorce law. With a believable balance of comedy and drama, the world Baumbach creates feels like the world we inhabit. One tone never overpowers the other, as the script is filled with just enough laugh-out-loud moments to compliment the heavy weight.
Even the production design has been approached with understated authenticity. Production Designer, Jade Healy, has created spaces that don’t try to grab your attention. Some locations aren’t even dressed, just existing as untouched blank rooms. This isn’t to say it lacks artistry, as each space is used to visually represent the characters’ emotional state. Baumbach and Cinematographer Robbie Ryan ensure that even the most bare location is shot and lit to enhance this bleakly poetic world. In a lesser filmmakers hands, it may have come across looking cheap and stale, but Baumbach proves to be a master of naturalism on nearly every level.
The one aspect where the believability may slip up for some, is in the lives of the characters themselves. While the portrayal of the separation is completely relatable, the fact that each divorcee works in film and theatre does narrow things a bit. People going through a tough divorce is hard on anyone and this story is sure to get the tears flowing, but it may have been even more powerful if it weren’t centring around Hollywood people. There’s a spectre that hangs over directors and actors which separates them in the public eye. Obviously, actors and directors are still people, but I do wonder if the humanism of the story will diminish for those that only see the spectre of Hollywood on these characters.
Ultimately, Noah Baumbach has created a powerful story which achieves great emotional heights. With the help of an amazing cast and a phenomenal script, Baumbach has a delivered a film with such authenticity and power that demands to be seen. Whether the viewer is going through a similar separation or is currently in the middle of a committed relationship, Marriage Story is a beautiful examination of what it means to love and to be loved. Expect this to be an important film for all involved and for all who see it.
Best way to watch it: Make sure you have enough comfort food and tissues handy.