When Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) surprisingly won the Oscar for Best Picture, it set the bar for films surrounding the concepts of family, parenthood, marriage and divorce. With his latest family-focused drama Marriage Story, writer/director Noah Baumbach (The Meyerowitz Stories) appears to have raised this bar to astonishing new heights.
Marriage Story follows Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), a couple whose marriage has run its natural course and are now faced with navigating the intricate complexities of a divorce that has a young child in the middle of it. It’s a story that is utterly human at its core and feels so real that it is impossible not to become completely emotionally invested in it.
Baumbach’s very personal screenplay invokes every emotion out of these characters; balancing humour, anger, sadness, love and pain in the most exceptional of ways. The script itself is filled with dialogue that flows so naturally, further creating this crushing sense of relatability to these characters and their predicament that transcends the screen and resonates with the viewer. It’s a film that is both heartbreaking and hilarious in a way unlike anything that’s come before it. The pacing and structuring of the story is faultless, so gripping that the lengthy 2 hours and 15 minutes runtime flies by in an instant and the film reaches its heart-wrenching climax that will leave you absolutely floored and desperate for more.
This constant feeling of raw, unfiltered emotion is not just imbued in the film through Baumbach’s exceptional writing and directing but also via it’s use of framing and music. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography captures the essence of the couple’s strife beautifully, using mid and long-shots to frame them on other sides of the room to each other to further invoke this idea of a separation, which gains more emotional traction when their child is framed in the middle of them. As the pair begin to live on opposite sides of the country, they are then framed as singular entities, telling the story through the way each character is depicted.
Close-ups are also used to great effect in being able to feel the pain of the characters as they lay themselves bare emotionally, with their eyes serving as indicators of their feelings that pierce through the screen and into the hearts of the audience. All of this is accompanied by a typically wonderful score by Randy Newman, simplistic in its tone yet it works so effectively in reflecting the rollercoaster of emotions that the film explores. There is truly no fault to be found in the way this film is pieced together, which only helps this story come together in the most impressive fashion.
Regardless of the colossal achievements by the crew, this is a film fuelled by two towering, career-best performances from its stars. Adam Driver is a complete tour-de-force as Charlie, somehow more nuanced than any of his previous work. Bringing forth every emotion at his disposal, he creates a character that the audience is able to both feel total empathy for whilst being able to identify and critique his faults. This is the hallmark of a truly landmark performance whose highlights include a venomous, emotionally charged monologue directed at Nicole that leads to a complete breakdown, as well as a stunning rendition of Sondheim’s ‘Being Alive’ that sums up his pain. It was hard to envision a better performance this year than Joaquin Phoenix in Joker, yet Driver probably surpasses him. He is undoubtedly Oscar-worthy in this film and would be a more than deserved winner if he takes home Best Actor.
Johansson, whilst perhaps not as outstanding as Driver, also delivers a performance that surpasses anything she’s done before. Whilst Nicole is of course different to Charlie, she equally offers a wide range of emotions whilst having her character flaws, which is an element that helps make the film work so effectively. Her re-telling of how she fell in love with Charlie is a particularly poignant moment that allows Johansson to really display her talents. The viewer finds themselves siding with each character at various points throughout the film, a testament to two phenomenally acted, well written characters who appeal to every facet of being a human. Johansson again has a close Oscar rival in Renée Zellweger, but her performance in Marriage Story is also more than worthy of an Oscar nomination, if not a win. The supporting cast features a typically fantastic Laura Dern who delivers one of the finest monologues the film has to offer, as well as pair of funny cameos by Alan Alda and Ray Liotta as two very different divorce lawyers. However, this is a film anchored by the two leads who are a key component in making this film such an all-round masterpiece.
In short, Marriage Story is the film of the year. Baumbach takes his writing and directing to astounding new levels with a relentlessly real, unfathomably sad yet fiercely funny tale that perfectly navigates the complexities of marriage and divorce. Supported by outstanding, Oscar-worthy turns from Driver and Johansson, this is the immediate favourite for Best Picture that transcends cinema and truly tugs at your heart.
Words by Elliott Jones