Marriage Story opens with the voices of each of its two main characters listing the reasons they love each other, while an illustrative montage plays. I found this evocative of Up’s famous opening scene, as it was complete in under eight minutes and managed to summarise the married lives of its protagonists in a manner neither rushed nor mawkish. The scene is similarly vital to understanding the entire movie, as the characters’ moving expressions of affection are immediately placed in contrast with the frosty atmosphere of a marriage counsellor’s office.
And so begins Nicole and Charlie’s descent from partners to bitter rivals for custody of their son during their divorce. Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) face a particularly difficult separation, as Nicole acts in the plays put on by Charlie’s theatre company. They must extricate themselves from each other both professionally and personally. In a meeting with her charismatic divorce lawyer Nora (a scene-stealing turn from Laura Dern), Nicole confesses that she realises that she needs more than motherhood to feel fulfilled, still a refreshing thing to hear in mainstream cinema. Dissatisfaction in middle age is territory that director Noah Baumbach has covered before, but his focus has frequently been on male characters. This film balances Nicole and Charlie’s stories evenly, beginning with an emphasis on Nicole before moving towards Charlie.
Baumbach’s wife, director Greta Gerwig, is an undeniable influence on this work. He himself has stated, “I became a better writer purely because I was trying to impress her.” Gerwig’s Ladybird featured such naturalistic performances from its actors, every awkward pause looking as if it were happening for the first time to real people. Marriage Story often gives the viewer the sensation that they are watching capital-A Acting, as Charlie clutches at Nicole’s knees or Nicole walks to the bathroom to blow her nose and returns in one unbroken shot. This is not without merit, as it is exhilarating to watch people moved to punch walls or turn red with rage. It is theatrical. But I ended up getting more out of Dern’s more understated performance as definition-of-soft-power Nora. I wished for Nora to be real as she consoled Nicole and promised cookies in the same elegant breath. Marriage Story’s strength is in its eye for detail. The moment Charlie kneels to embrace his son only to watch him run past him is heart-wrenching. The affection between soon-to-be-ex husband and wife feels true, as does the burgeoning animosity between them. The tonal shift happens barely noticeably, reflecting the experience of the characters. They suddenly find themselves in a courtroom, regretting the extent of their struggles.
I never tire of films about middle-class people having problems, for the same reason that I enjoy conversations about astrology: narcissism. I concede that there are probably enough films about the white, heterosexual human condition, but for its balanced, non-judgemental approach to divorce, I believe that there is a place for Marriage Story. Though it is let down slightly by its tendency towards melodrama, its narrative is deeply affecting.