A Marriage Story review

November 28, 2019

 Image courtesy of Variety.com

Returning from the cinema, I knew this was going to be a particularly difficult review for me to write.

As much as there is to admire about this film, I have to admit that it failed me as a viewer, and that very failure has left a dramatic emotional impact on me that even now I am slowly struggling to shake off. This film succeeded superbly at bringing me face to face with the darkest and angriest recesses of my own mind, but in fumbling it's third act, it failed to bring me back to reality. I am still on the unhappy ledge where it left me, in a state of emotional constipation that I cannot at this moment see a clear way out of.  Through its inconsistent effectiveness as a piece of drama, this film left me more upset than any other film I can recall. Each time I pause in typing out these words, my hands resume trembling uncontrollably. This film’s strengths have shaken me, but its weaknesses have devastated me and I don't know how to approach it.

This is a rare instance where I am confronted with the real power that drama possesses and the responsibility that comes with putting a person through the emotional wringer.

The film follows Charlie and Nicole (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson), a theatre director and actor, and married couple, through their transcontinental divorce. It's a kind of drama we've seen handled before, including by this film's writer director Noah Baumbach, whose breakthrough feature The Squid and the Whale in 2005, told the separation process from the perspective of the sons caught in the middle of the warring parents. Here again, there is a son whose development is in jeopardy.

Like that film, this also contains elements of mumblecore comedy, I didn't find them especially likeable in some of Baumbach's earlier films, but here, in the dark context of the emotional exhaustion lain on the viewer, they were often painful and colossally misjudged.

The centrepieces of the film are two scenes of high emotional drama. The first epitomises everything the film does well, a single take shows Nicole telling her side of the story to her sympathetic lawyer Nora (Laura Dern) over tea. It's a devastatingly impassioned sympathy winning monologue, utterly convincing on every level and without a doubt is the crowning moment of Scarlett Johansson's career, it is a better, and more believably broken performance than I ever would have believed her capable of and Driver is working on the same level in his scenes.

The second scene is the one that broke me. It ends the second act, with Nicole coming to Charlie's spartan apartment to hopefully lay down arms. The peace is broken and the scene devolves into the most impassioned outpouring of rage between the two characters that I have ever seen convincingly portrayed onscreen. And the crippling part is that you get it. You take sides, you get angry. At one point, Driver puts his fist through the wall and in amongst all that rage, that was the detail that triggered me. I know that kind of anger, I recognised it, not in my own father, but in myself. I was then subjected to a wave of shame, anger and crippling depression that the remainder of the film, despite its objective strength, failed to alleviate.

That is what is wrong with this film. It worked too well and unwittingly did things that it couldn't ever undo and will never know about.

That is my lasting impression of this film, I fear it will forever be tied up with memories that I have spent the last decade of my life trying to keep buried.

Insofar as my momentary impressions of the film, I found its details to be hit and miss, some scenes worked very well, especially early on, others fell on their faces, and the acting was immaculate across the board. The film was poorly paced and there was much I felt needed to be cut and many times during the third act I found myself thinking "...there's more?!" no doubt because I was so unhappy by that point, although I definitely consider it inferior to the very similar Before Midnight.

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