Divorce on film: break-up movies that get to the heart of the matter
Mining drama from divorce in film is like shooting fish in a barrel. It's an inherently adversarial process born out of relationship breakdown, with all the angst, anger and trauma that entails. There are no winners, it's rarely black and white and the best portrayals of divorce on film find the nuances and truth in the grey.
Writer/director Noah Baumbach's latest film Marriage Story has been praised for its uncompromising examination of a marriage in decline and it pays homage to the definitive divorce film, Kramer vs Kramer. Released in 1979, the film bagged five Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Dustin Hoffman and Best Supporting Actress for Meryl Streep. She plays Joanna Kramer, the neglected wife of Hoffman's alcoholic ad executive Ted, who one day announces she is leaving him and their young son to find herself in California.
Hoffman's character is left to figure out how to be a father and just as he's finally functioning in the role, Streep's character returns and wants her son back.
The film arrived in the wake of the second wave of feminism from the 60s and 70s and is based on a novel by Avery Corman, who told Vanity Fair in 2016 that his intention with the book had been to offer an alternative to the "toxic rhetoric" of feminists who he felt portrayed all men as the "bad guys".
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When Streep read the screenplay for the film, however, she objected to the portrayal of her character, describing her as "an ogre, a princess, an ass". She felt Joanna was not a villain and she should elicit sympathy, not condemnation, from the audience.
In the film, Joanna gives a monologue in the courtroom which goes some way to explaining her behaviour in leaving her husband and son, and offers balance in a film that is, until then, largely Ted's story.
In Revolutionary Road, Sam Mendes' 2008 film, Kate Winslet's character April Wheeler faces a similar struggle with the traditional role of motherhood as she moves, with husband Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) and two children, from New York to the Connecticut suburbs. Based on the novel by Richard Yates, and set in the 1950s, it's an utterly bleak portrayal of a marriage rotting from within thanks, in the main, to Frank's apathy and April's disillusionment. Divorce seems inevitable, but this is the 1950s and there is a worse fate in store for April.
Derek Cianfrance's 2010 film Blue Valentine paints a similarly bleak picture of marriage, following Dean (Ryan Gosling) and Cynthia (Michelle Williams, who was nominated for Best Actress for the role) through their early courtship and six-year marriage. Like April Wheeler, Cynthia becomes increasingly disillusioned with her lot in life and increasingly despondent towards Dean, who refuses to admit they have problems, never mind understand how to tackle them.
In recent years, depictions of divorce on screen have shifted beyond the impact on women, and men, to their children. Baumbach previously tackled the impact of marriage breakdown on children in his 2005 film The Squid And The Whale, which was inspired, in part, by his own parents' divorce.
The focus is on two young boys (Jesse Eisenberg and Owen Kline), whose writer father Bernard is struggling to make an impression in his career as their mother Joan is lauded for her work. The tension between their parents escalates to the point of separation and the boys find themselves under pressure to align themselves with one parent or the other. The film also explores the painful impact of the situation on their lives beyond the home.
One of the most unsettling films about divorce and children is What Maisie Knew. The 2012 film is adapted from the 1897 novel of the same name, but is set in the present day. Filmed almost exclusively from the point of view of a six-year-old girl, it is uncompromising in its message that children see and hear everything, often becoming innocent pawns in their parents' wranglings.
Julianne Moore plays rock star mother Susanna who is divorcing Maisie's businessman father Beale (Steve Coogan). The film follows Maisie through the early stages of the divorce, an ugly custody battle, and various instances of emotional neglect inflicted by both her parents.
Of course, not all divorces are traumatic and damaging. Richard Linklater's wonderful Boyhood (2014) follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane), from childhood to early adulthood. We meet Mason in early childhood after his parents have divorced. They move on to new relationships and Mason's life is peppered with positive and negative experiences.
When we leave him as he starts college, however, it's clear he is a perfectly well-adjusted young man full of promise, who continues to have positive relationships with both his parents.