New York Theatre director, Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) and his actress wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) have been married for several years. However their once strong love has turned to resentment and the two have decided to split. Nicole returns to her native Los Angeles with their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) to pursue a TV pilot, which is the catalyst for a brutal custody battle that will suck in Nicole’s family and their friends and test them both to their limits.
Although this film is called Marriage Story in many ways it is a divorce story.
On one side it looks at the complexities of divorce when children are involved. As lawyers get involved, it becomes clear that there is no simple, reasonable way to determine what is best for Henry or for Charlie and Nicole for that matter and the messy, mercenary nature of American family law is on full show with all its flaws. The cost of everything is eye-watering, as is the realisation that the parental desire to be with one’s children has been commoditised.
On the other side it explores what happened in Charlie and Nicole’s marriage through their conversations with each other and their lawyers, their letters to each other written in a failed attempt at mediation and through their families and friends’ memories and interactions.
The whole story felt very real throughout. Charlie and Nicole feel like real people with real experiences. Neither of them is a villain so to speak. They’re both just people with hopes and dreams who have been both kind and cruel to each other through their life together and continue to be so. I could really appreciate their frustration with each other as well as their natural instinct to seek comfort from each other because of the comfortable and familiar nature of their relationship.
This is very much Driver and Johansson’s show and they both give very powerful performances. There is one particular scene where they attempt to get to a reasonable resolution and devolve into a brutal argument that will stick with me for ages. Watching it it’s not difficult to believe that these are two people who have had a relationship and are having trouble extricating themselves from it. I felt really emotionally invested in their story and the future of their family and it just worked.
There are some excellent secondary performances. Laura Dern is great as Nicole’s seemingly gentle but ultimately vicious lawyer, Nora. Charlie has two completely different lawyers, the kind, weatherworn Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) and the ultra competitive, Jay Moratta (Ray Liotta). Both embody their roles.
I can see why this was nominated for an Oscar and for me it was an emotional and rewarding watch. I don’t think I’d watch it again though as it was quite draining and often upsetting.