(This should not be considered spoiler-free, although no major plot points are revealed.)
When one hears the word divorce, the first thoughts that usually come to mind are ‘court,’ ‘hate,’ and ‘anger,’ but not love. However, Noah Baumbach has taken a step deeper, and rewritten the societal narrative of divorce, turning it into a stunning display of just how much you can still love someone even throughout the heartbreak of separation.
Marriage Story, written and directed by Baumbach and starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, follows Nicole and Charlie as they navigate learning to live on their own again, re-finding themselves as individuals, co-parenting, and the ugly side of divorce. While in most stories of this nature there’s a clear line of who’s right and who’s wrong, neither of these characters is a clear cut ‘villain.’ Baumbach has contrived a beautiful gray palette to explore these characters in — we see them both do wrong, struggle, falter, and even overcome. There are no absolutes, no definitive action that cements blame on either party, and it makes it difficult to do anything but sympathize with both of them.
It begins with monologues from both Nicole and Charlie, reading aloud all the things they love about the other. Without any prior knowledge of the plot, you’d think you were heading into a beautiful romance film, until we’re abruptly cut to reality. The couple is at their mediation, the decision to separate already made. We follow along as Nicole moves from their New York home of 10 years, taking their 8-year-old son Henry with her back to her native Los Angeles, to turn her career from theater back to films. Charlie, an esteemed theater director, is left frequently flying back and forth to see his son and attend divorce hearings in LA, and then returning to NYC to continue his directing work with an ongoing production. Both having previously decided no lawyers would be involved, we see Nicole consult a highly competitive lawyer, much to the shock of Charlie, who is left scrambling to find himself representation.
While the story does tend to lean more sympathetically toward Charlie, Nicole is not left as a vengeful wife trying to rip their son away his father and play the villain. She has a story of her own — broken promises of more time with her family in LA that wasted away, declined LA theater projects, and the feeling of losing herself to this relationship and the life they’d built — one she takes partial blame in. The sides are evenly balanced, we see the same amount of screen time with both Nicole and Charlie, and whenever they share a scene, one’s emotional response is not omitted. Baumbach did an exceptional job of making this a story about them both equally, never giving one the upper hand, in both the writing and directing.
Their bottled emotions and the clear sense of love they still hold for one another makes this a difficult watch. Johansson and Driver play their parts exceptionally plausible — that repressed devotion and benevolence they still feel toward the other evident on every feature of their face, even if the script is trying to say otherwise. They convince the audience perfectly that despite this divorce being necessary, it is not born of hatred or disdain. Through it all, they still want to come out of the other side with the other still a permanent fixture in their life, and not because they need to for Henry’s sake, but because deep down they will always love one another. These are both award-winning performances, and to see these two masterful technicians face-off with one another is a reason in itself to watch this film.
The supporting cast is also exceptional. From Laura Dern’s heavy-hitting divorce attorney Nora, to Ray Liotta’s equally cutthroat attorney Jay, and Alan Alda’s compassionate family lawyer Bert, each play an important role in making both Charlie and Nicole see that the only people in this fight that matter is their family.
If there was one thing to dislike, it was the talk of a previous extramarital affair. The story was poignant enough without that, and it seemed to only weaken the emotional strength of the rest of the script. At times, it seemed out of place with Driver’s character, not quite fitting into the narrative that was laid out for him. From every other angle, he seemed to be the one aiming to try and keep the ship afloat, so it just didn’t fit into the intricacies of Charlie that they built for him, but it doesn’t take away from the story as a whole.
Marriage Story is about one thing — people. It isn’t about blame, or fault, or one side versus the other, it isn’t a tragedy — it’s about two people who just want what’s best for themselves, while still not being willing to destroy the other in the process. It’s about love, compassion, tenderness, and the strength of remembering why you’d loved that person to begin with, and holding on to that.