Monday, October 25, 2021

‘Scenes from a Marriage’ Review: When Love Just Isn’t Enough

Warning: This article contains spoilers.

The fifth and final episode of Scenes from a Marriage, Hagai Levi’s modern adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s classic Swedish miniseries, premiered on HBO on Sunday evening. Starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, this series explores love, hatred, desire, monogamy, marriage, and divorce through the lens of a contemporary American couple.

Over the course of five episodes, audiences are taken through several years in the lives of Jonathan (Isaac) and Mira (Chastain), a married couple with a young daughter. Right from the get-go, there’s a simmering tension beneath the surface of their relationship, something that quickly turns into an unforgiving, nonstop whirlwind of emotions as the series goes on.

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This dialogue-heavy series is directly carried by the acting prowesses of Isaac and Chastain, who tapped directly into the chemistry and trust nestled within their 20 years of friendship to give some of the most emotional, stirring, and impassioned performances of their respective careers. With minimal set changes throughout the series and limited pacing with the passage of time, it was wholly up to these two to command audience attention through their words and actions alone.

Jojo Whilden/HBO

Scenes from a Marriage isn’t an easy watch. There’s so much palpable pain, anger, and hatred that exists between Jonathan and Mira, and the raw honesty of it all can take a lot out of you as a viewer. However, this is a testament to how well Isaac and Chastain portrayed their characters, and it’s something to appreciate greatly between your tears. The storytelling and acting here is incredibly brave, diving into the deepest, dirtiest, most unrefined moments of a messy, failed relationship, ones that wouldn’t normally be shown on-screen. We also see a variety of mundane tasks around the house carried out as the two go about their lives, many of which are romanticized in a fascinating, intriguing manner thanks to the show’s directorial style.

Almost all of Scenes from a Marriage takes place inside of Jonathan and Mira’s house, barring a few scenes in the finale, which is surprisingly a far less claustrophobic concept than what it sounds like on paper. Using the house as the main setting allowed the series to show the passage of time and different stages in their lives and relationship by making changes within the house itself, both large and small. Despite the fact that they’ve long-since divorced and sold their home, the last episode manages to return to the house with a brilliant, modern twist — it’s now an Airbnb rental. This specific choice echoed the current state of Jonathan and Mira’s relationship so painfully and perfectly; they felt a melancholic sense of nostalgia as they walked through the remodelled and redecorated rooms of their old home, faced with the reality that this chapter of their lives is now truly gone with only faded echoes remaining.

Scenes from a Marriage borrows much of its story from the original, but a major change was the decision to have Mira be the one who leaves Jonathan for her extramarital affair, rather than vice versa. While this did indeed villainize Mira for much of the series, it also turned the tables by giving almost all of the power to the woman, rather than the man. And although my heart most certainly broke for Jonathan, this allowed the show to explore the concept of a successful woman eventually coming to recognize her need for independence and her innate struggle to be in a relationship — something that Mira explains to Jonathan in the finale once she finally understands it. (The way she went about reaching this point of self-actualization was admittedly an absolute train wreck on her part.)

Jojo Whilden/HBO
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Jonathan’s surprising and unfortunate loss of any and all shreds of his remaining morality was a particularly tough pill to swallow, especially knowing that the collapse of his marriage was the spark that lit him up and left nothing behind but ashes and smoke. Isaac carried Jonathan’s shifting, troubled, and agonized emotions with ease from the first episode to the last, capping off his frantic sorrow with a cool (yet worrisome) indifference to it all.

The ending of Scenes from a Marriage is far from happy or gratifying. There’s no final moment where Jonathan feels truly guilty and runs home to his new family, and there’s no glimmer of hope that perhaps he and Mira have finally found one another again. Instead, both characters lay their cards down on the table, shameless in their acceptance of what they have both become. It’s miserable, and it’s tragic. But for whatever reason, it works. Sometimes we need a reminder that not all endings are happy.

All five episodes of Scenes from a Marriage are now streaming on HBO Max.

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Lindsey
Lindsey joined the Nerds and Beyond team in 2018. She has spent a large portion of her life dedicated to her first love, photography. When she's not behind the camera, she's likely reading books and comics or dabbling in creative writing. Otherwise, she's probably yelling about something Star Wars or Marvel related on Twitter @lindyysolo. Contact: lindsey@nerdsandbeyond.com

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