Entertainment Movie Reviews

Thursday 23 January 2020

Marriage Story review: Gripping, tragi-comic domestic drama may make you reconsider that divorce

4 stars

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in Marriage Story
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in Marriage Story
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Another barnstorming week for Netflix, who last Friday injected a bracing dose of quality cinema into the multiplexes with The Irishman.

Now they humbly present Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, a gripping, tragi-comic domestic drama that at times feels like the kind of film Woody Allen might make if he were ‘woke’ (and if such a scenario were imaginable). In the opening scenes, you might suspect you’re about to be treated to a lush romance, as Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) detail in calm and reflective voiceovers the reasons why they love one another. Then we find out that they were asked to compile the lists by a marriage counsellor.

Charlie and Nicole are kindred spirits: he’s an up-and-coming stage director, she his talented lead actress, and the theatre is their life’s blood. They have a son together, Henry (Azhy Robertson), a laidback and inquisitive eight-year-old who’s about to be put through the wringer.

Nicole was a child movie star and a big cheese in Hollywood who a decade ago gave up her film career and moved to New York to be with Charlie. Now, she announces with quiet determination, she intends to move back there, and decamps to Los Angeles with Henry to live with her mother (Julie Hagerty) and sister (Merritt Wever). Charlie is crestfallen, but decides to treat their departure as a temporary experiment: he will soon be persuaded otherwise.

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One of the many interesting things about Marriage Story is the way it treats Charlie and Nicole equally, trying to present the situation from both their perspectives and refusing to take sides. Charlie, though kind, is self-absorbed, pompous, and inclined to conflate the desires of others with his own. He’s a bit full of himself, and has not noticed that his ego and controlling streak have been smothering Nicole’s creativity, her soul.

She, an inward-looking ruminator, has let her dissatisfactions fester too long, and angrily makes the mistake of involving a lawyer in her marital breakdown. “We need to tell your story,” says Nora, a sharply dressed Los Angeles divorce lawyer brilliantly played by Laura Dern. Her presence will oblige Charlie to hire an attorney too, unleashing a ghastly legal death dance neither party will be able to control.

A lot of Noah Baumbach’s movies - The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, While We’re Young - are inspired by his own life. His divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, with whom he has a son, may well have provided the original idea for Marriage Story, but the film soars free of its autobiographical moorings to create a failed romance that seems painfully, touchingly real.

The film sucks you into the pain and misery of a separation protracted and complicated by the interference of lawyers, who are however not demonised and also fully formed characters. The shysters are a constant source of humour: Charlie’s first lawyer Bert (Alan Alda), insists on saying “now if I were representing you” months after he’s already been hired. Ray Liotta plays the sharply-dressed thug to whom Charlie next turns for help, and Laura Dern is superb as the ruthless ever-smiling Nora, whom Nicole will only gradually realise is not really her friend.

Any husband or wife can be made to seem monstrous if placed under the microscope, and Charlie comes out pretty badly when forced to endure a visit from a court observer who sits and watches while he looks after his son. The legal apparatus of divorce seems hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with the complexities and nuances of a marriage, full of little slights and failings but also of magic moments, fleeting intimacies. Charlie and Nicole seem to realise this, and observe the public spectacle of their slowly unravelling marriage with alarm and regret.

The film’s emotional honesty and eye for detail places huge demands on Johansson and Driver. She’s never been better, and gives a wonderfully nuanced portrayal of a woman whose determination to assert her individuality and desires has ended up hurting her every bit as much as her egotistical ex.

As he’s shown in films like Paterson and Baumbach’s While We’re Young, Adam Driver is an intelligent and versatile actor who’s particularly good at playing suppressed emotions. In one explosive scene in Marriage Story those fomenting emotions explode, as Charlie and Nicole let rip at each other and say the worst things they can think of. But at the end of it they hug, and apologise: they mourn their lost intimacy, and there are no winners here - apart from the lawyers maybe.

If you’re currently considering getting divorced, a stiff viewing of Marriage Story might persuade you not to; it may put others off the idea of ever getting married in the first place.

(15A, 137mins)

Also releasing this week:

The Report

4 stars

America’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks began the slow erosion of US prestige that has culminated in the disastrous ‘diplomacy’ of Trump.

This knotty, weighty, fiercely earnest drama follows the dogged work of Senate investigator Daniel Jones (Adam Driver), who in 2009 was asked to investigate claims that the CIA had systematically tortured suspects.

He found plenty of evidence, and more damningly proved that the torture had yielded no useful information.

Directed by Scott Z. Burns, The Report’s tense, flat style is clearly inspired by All the President’s Men: it’s not as good as that, but is well worth watching.

(15A, 120mins)

Le Mans 66

3 stars

In 1963, stung by falling sales and a botched attempt to buy the all-conquering Ferrari racing brand, Henry Ford II decided to build a racing car of his own with a view to humiliating the Italians by beating them at the Le Mans 24-hour race.

This film is based on the true story of what happened next, and stars Matt Damon as visionary car designer Carroll Shelby, Christian Bale as his bombastic British driver Ken Miles.

Overlong and a little silly, Le Mans ‘66 is also irresistibly entertaining, despite and partly because of some outrageous overacting by Christian Bale, who appears to have forgotten how to be English.

Last Christmas

3 stars

Inspired by the songs of the late George Michael and as sickly sweet as a pint of egg nog, Last Christmas stars Emilia Clarke as Kate, a young woman who works in a Christmas shop in Covent Garden but dreams of becoming a singing star.

Still recovering from a serious operation, she lives chaotically until a chance meeting with a handsome stranger called Tom (Henry Fielding) changes the course of her life.

It’s super Chrissmassy, with echoes of Dickens and much else besides, and though ragged around the edges is made watchable by fine performances and George Michael’s winning, wonderful songs.

(12A, 103mins)

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