Truly an exposition of theatrical art, Marriage Story offers a genuine, realistic and human look at its subject matter that leaves a lingering trace.
Central to the film are the writing and the lead performances by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, who both bring a subtle vulnerability to each of their characters. Perhaps most impressive is the actors’ ability to convey a sense of emotional restraint, implying their mutual growing frustration with each other, and eventually with the divorce process. This suggestion of emotion humanizes them both, heightens the film’s verisimilitude, and renders scenes of actual outward emotion that much more effective.
Rather than vilifying one or the other, the script demonstrates the discrepancy between the couple’s initial expectations, and the ultimate reality of their relationship and of each other. The film seems to risk siding with one of the parents by initially focusing more on the issues of one, however it thankfully manages to ‘balance the scales’.
Despite the inherent necessity for dialogue and screen time for ancillary characters, it always feels organic and logical to the story, thanks to solid writing and delivery. Writer/director Noah Baumbach deftly navigates a variety of tones, with both a scene of awkward hilarity, as well as a genuinely heartbreaking (and admittedly tear-inducing) confrontation scene, where Driver and Johansson truly shine with raw emotion and intensity.
Randy Newman’s subtle and understated musical score complements the film’s tone and realism, imbuing it with slightly hopeful melancholy. Much like the score, the cinematography is also relatively understated and unassuming. However, there are instances of warm, inviting colour palettes and examples of effective and narratively purposeful shot composition.
Yet it’s the film’s inherent subject matter and presentation that may be a deterrent to potential viewers, and indeed to potential revisits by those who see, appreciate, and enjoy it (as much as a film about divorce can be ‘enjoyed’). Aside from some questionable editing choices and a handful instances of inexcusably poor ADR/sound editing, the film has effectively no shortcomings.
Its very strong writing and performances make it an investing watch that, while slow, gives viewers a chance to reflect on themselves and their own personal handling of relationships. Any film that inspires such self-reflection is worthy of commendation. Marriage Story should not be viewed or approached as entertainment. As a piece of art, it is an enriching and thoughtful (if not entirely rewatchable) experience with fantastic performances for those willing to invest in a slow and emotionally complex exploration of human relationships.
Image: Dick Thomas Johnson via Wikimedia Commons