7th October 2019 11.15am at Embankment Garden Cinema
7th October 2019 2.00pm at Odeon Leicester Square
11th October 2019 12.00pm at odeontcr: Odeon Tottenham Court Road
The politics of divorce are often reduced to statistics – the signatures, the settlements all sealed neatly in a crisp manila envelope. Perhaps this is why filmmakers have sought so often to tear it open through cinema, from Robert Benton’s iconic Kramer vs. Kramer to Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale. But it seems Baumbach hasn’t yet exhausted this resource, and his latest movie explores a coast-to-coast separation, as actress Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) moves to LA and files for divorce against New York-based director Charlie (Adam Driver). To be frank, Marriage Story covers no new narrative ground, and consequently has no right to be impressive – and yet somehow, it is.
Ironically, the collaboration between the director and his lead duo is an example of matrimonial bliss. Johansson and Driver deliver Oscar-worthy performances, Baumbach’s delicate yet devastating tonal changes leading them from amicable agreements to all-consuming rage. Johansson emerges gently from her hibernation, first expressing her stifled creativity timidly and then erupting with captivating animosity, whilst Driver compels as the self-obsessed artist who seethes and then soothes himself by imagining that his wife’s dreams are synonymous with his own. The story switches deftly from one side to the other; it’s the balance between our sympathies that makes this film such a triumph of characterisation.
Our investment in the story is helped also by yet another whip-sharp screenplay, capturing with convincing subtlety the everyday humour that can be found even in the darkest of times. Notable comic performances come courtesy of Laura Dern as the delightfully duplicitous divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw, and Julie Hagerty as Nicole’s over-involved mother. Having said that, it’s slightly disappointing that the director of modern feminist masterpiece Mistress America has chosen a much safer, Netflix-accessible terrain in which to ground his complex characters.
Nonetheless, Baumbach still manages to elevate a classic tale through spine-tingling moments. The most notable comes via his incorporation of Stephen Sondheim’s Company into the soundtrack, with a performance of You Could Drive a Person Crazy by Johansson and then an especially poignant rendition of Being Alive by Driver. The musical, a satire on marriage, beautifully mirrors the contemporary struggles of our protagonists, with Charlie using their union as a means to sustain himself and gaslighting Nicole in the process. But despite his dangerous delusions, the true antagonist of the story seems to be a legal system that commodifies love and makes money from tragedy. Sharp suits and stilettos fashion the divorce into a ruthless competition, a race to be lost and won.
This film is not revolutionary in terms of plot or themes, but it manages to be a work of art nonetheless, a tale of marriage (and its breakdown) that stands out due to the sheer brilliance of the storytelling.
Marriage Story does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews and interviews from our London Film Festival 2019 coverage here.
For further information about the festival visit the official BFI website here.
Watch the trailer for Marriage Story here: