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Marriage Story movie review: A deeply affecting drama

Marriage Story movie review: Scarlett Johansson is vulnerable and strong, confident and unsure, generous and stern, all at the same time, as giving to tears as spontaneous action, her unforgettable lips a picture of masterful quiver.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Written by Shalini Langer | New Delhi | Updated: December 7, 2019 2:12:42 pm
Marriage Story Marriage Story is streaming on Netflix.

Marriage Story movie cast: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Azhy Robertson, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Alan Alda, Merritt Wever, Julie Hagerty
Marriage Story movie director: Noah Baumbach
Marriage Story movie rating: 4.5 stars

If marriages are made in heaven, most days paradise seems a long, long road, paved with thankless good intentions. But, on good days, you can still tell the sun from the clouds. Marriage Story catches a couple when the spark is just starting to dim but — and herein lies its strength — no one is exactly sure why.

Nicole (Johansson) and Charlie (Driver) are a great couple, great artistes, great friends, and great parents. Baumbach opens with the two reading out what got them attracted to one another in the first place, and both Nicole and Charlie’s accounts drip with warmth and genuine affection. Suddenly though we cut to the two of them with a marriage counsellor, where a distressed Nicole refuses to read what she has written. It is the first sign that this won’t be the elegant, neat divorce that Gwyneth Paltrow ambitiously termed ‘conscious uncoupling’.

However, over an unhurried two-hour plus, the Barbers do uncouple, tugging away at each link in the chain. In this suspected autobiographical retelling, Baumbach, who was once married to Janet Jason Leigh, suggests not just the hurt that each tug causes but also the strength of that chain. When neither Nicole nor Charlie is guilty of anything worse than growing up and apart, whose side do you take? When she allows him a good bawling digging his head into her stomach, how can you not love her? When he explains that his biggest fear is his son Henry would think his father “didn’t fight for him enough”, how can your heart not break for him? In most marriages where the big things are made of millions of small things, who can lay claim to the longer column of things done right?

That said, writer-director Baumbach appears to have a softer corner for Charlie, who picks “serious” theatre over “frivolous” TV, “edgy” New York over “summery” Los Angeles and, who despite an extra-marital fling, gets just a rap in the knuckles while it’s Nicole who forces the separation for reasons she confesses to be only partially clear about. However, how small things can mount up is lucidly conveyed by Nicole in an honest unravelling before her flinty lawyer, played with tube-dress, stilletto precision by Dern. Liotta as Charlie’s lawyer gets far lesser to do, while Alda is delightful as the avuncular lawyer who tries bumblingly to not let divorce get as dirty as it invariably does.

Moving on to Johansson, and what an iridiscent performance this is from an actor who is going from strength to strength in her vast array of roles. She is vulnerable and strong, confident and unsure, generous and stern, all at the same time, as giving to tears as spontaneous action, her unforgettable lips a picture of masterful quiver. Driver, with his unusual, angly face, is slower to catch up, but by the end, is as much a victim of uncomprehending sorrow as love drips away.

Holding them together, at all times, is their son Henry, played with pitch-perfect insouciance by Azhy Robertson. This six-year-old doesn’t come wrapped in cotton wool, can survive a curse word and two, and more reassuringly, suggests in his stoicism that what is happening is not the end of the world.

Still, he also keeps alive the possibility that it may not be the end of the road for the Barbers either. Nicole and Charlie seem at all times — and once, heartstoppingly, at either side of a sliding gate — just an arm’s length away. The question is, who will extend a hand?

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