Marriage Story (2019)

While many directors, actors and producers blame streaming services for slowly killing cinema as we know it, it's yet again a Netflix original most people are praising these days. The film in question is Noah Baumbach's latest, Marriage Story, which is a realistic, raw, emotionally poignant and draining essay on divorce — a heart-wrenching film that left me in pieces.

The film opens with two beautiful monologues, one from Charlie (Adam Driver) the other from Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), describing the things they love most about each other. They both are lists so detailed, it's hard if not impossible not to relate to them; they are so touchingly performed, it's hard if not impossible to stop the first of many tears; and they allow us to know who they are: Charlie is a famed, celebrated play writer and director, Nicole, who once was a TV star, is now a stage actress as well as Charlie's muse, and they live in New York with their young son, Henry (Ahzy Robertson). 

They couldn't sound happier and more in love and yet the next thing we know is that they are in a mediator's office, the lists letters meant as an exercise to make them understand why they got married in the first place and a final attempt to change their minds about divorcing.

Things get complicated when Nicole moves back to her home city of Los Angeles to shoot a pilot for a television series, brings Henry with her and files for divorce. Although they promise to keep their break-up amicable for their son's sake, due to Nicole's desire to stay in Los Angeles and Charlie's unwillingness to leave New York, lawyers (Laura Dern and Ray Liotta) get involved and the divorce reaches toxic levels.

Semi-autobiographical as it's based on Baumbach's divorce from Jennifer Jason Leigh, Marriage Story's is a devastating tale of the deterioration of a couple's relationship, a relationship that is ending in spite of the fact that they still love and care for each other tremendously. It is a story that shows the unfairness of divorce settlements, how the divorce process is actually more hurtful and painful than the breakup itself, and how it's the lawyers who pull all the strings once they get involved and are the sole winners at the end. It shows how one person can lose themself completely in a relationship — Nicole's awakening is indeed what drives them apart as she realises that she isn't her own person anymore but an extension of her husband, that she has done so much for him but he hasn't done anything in return. Most of all, it is the story of love in its totality, from the idyllic beginning when things are going perfectly, to the moment of collision when all the rage explodes, and, with its ending, shows how it is possible to fall out of love with someone but never stop really loving them.

However, what truly drives Marriage Story isn't the story but its lead couple. The two opening monologues work as a superb introduction to Charlie and Nicole. In barely ten minutes, as we listen to them as they explain what they love about each other, Baumbach makes us feel as if we've known them forever, reason why it's impossible not to experience pain as they go through their divorce. He also wrote two well-rounded characters, both flawed and real, two good people who have to deal with the most challenging phase of love. They are both trying as hard as they can and, despite wanting different things, they both want the best for their son. We see how divorce brings out the worst in people and yet Baumbach manages to keep both characters extremely empathetic. He doesn't take sides, so we don't either and, how it is with most relationships in real life, we blame both.

Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are truly phenomenal in their roles, both performances so genuine and real as they both disappear into the roles that you forget you are watching two people act. It's because of them and their commitment that Marriage Story is as powerful and emotional as it is. They share such wonderful chemistry you can see how much Charlie and Nicole love each other, reason why their arguments will bring you to tears and the explosive, climactic argument at Charlie's apartment will break you into a million pieces.

The supporting cast also gives stunning performances. While Julia Hagerty, Marriott Weaver, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta are great and entertaining additions, the first three proving great comic-relief, it's Laura Dern who steals the show in the role of Nora Fanshaw, a win-at-all-costs, feminist lawyer. She is incredible in the courtroom scenes with Liotta, but her performance reaches its peak when she delivers the feminist speech that it's so real it hurts as he expresses so many emotions and is beyond hypnotizing.

Baumbach's screenplay also finds that line between heavy drama and black comedy and owns it from start to finish. There's indeed a perfect balance of drama and comedy which results in a rollercoaster of emotions as the film will have you laughing in one scene — the awkward visit of the social worker and Nicole's sister's rehearsal being the most humorous — and pouring tears in the next one. The dialogue, every single line of it, is complex, subtle, honest and realistic, and it's thoroughly engaging.

Robbie Ryan's cinematography is a pure masterclass. The way the camera is angled in the courtroom scenes emphasise how it's the lawyers who make things nasty, the long cinematic takes are breathtaking, and it does a fantastic job at capturing the beauty of both cities — New York and Los Angeles —, and putting in contrast the two — the congested, claustrophobic Brooklyn apartment opposed to the spacious California home. The score from Randy Newman, which is uplift and heartbreaking at the same time, is also fantastic and very fitting to the film's tone and compliments the cinematography incredibly well.

With Marriage Story, Baumbach doesn't attempt to make a commentary on all divorces; he simply brings to the screen a specific divorce that plays out in a specific way and nails it. Charlie and Nicole's divorce will get under your skin and will stay with you long after the film is over, leaving you with so much sadness, frustration, anger and pain, the strong emotions you would feel if it was your divorce unfolding on screen.


  1. Yaaaaaaas I'm glad you liked this as much as I did!

    1. Why did it have to be so wreaking though? I cry everything I think about it.

  2. Excellent review, I agree with everything you wrote.

  3. I cannot separate Johansson on screen from her supporting Allen in real life so even though Charlie was a cheater I was on his side. I thought this was sensationalized but it was very entertaining and definitely the best movie I saw this year.. Hopefully Driver wins all the awards

  4. Fine review. I've yet to see anyone who really disliked this movie. Boy does it pack a punch.