Marriage Story (dir. Noah Baumbach, 2019) – A successful theatre director and actress go through the trials of divorce.
Charlie (Adam Driver) rarely gets defeated, in the ways that Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) feels like she always does. He keeps things in order where she does not, and she pushes him when he gets stuck in his ways. The warm montage that celebrates their love’s little moments is, minutes later, achingly revealed to be the start of their separation.
Sitting before a stranger mediating their divorce, they look back at the little things that they love each other for and wonder how they let them slip. In the same vein of Blue Valentine, Marriage Story is a romance movie after the happily-ever-afters, reminding us of how we never truly know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.
Inspired by his experiences and that of the cast, Noah Baumbach writes with honesty that comes from the heart. He lays bare the emotional fault lines that are often left unspoken about in relationships. Barring Jennifer Jason Leigh’s side of the story, his deeply personal work remains an incisive take on love found and lost.
His past films The Squid and the Whale and The Meyerowitz Stories might have taken similar cues from his past, but never had he delved deeper into the costs of a broken marriage. The result is grounded, riveting, and revelatory of truths seldom told.
The vulnerability of his characters comes from a place of authenticity, as do their unexpressed resentments that fester within relationships. Charlie is self-absorbed and unfaithful, failing to consider the hurt he has caused. Nicole is volatile and evasive, never expressing what she truly wants. In court, they weaponise intimate details that had once only made them feel closer.
Both wanted a win, disregarding where that might leave them – or their son. It is easy to place the blame on either of them, or even the legal system. After all, the attorneys were the ones spurring them on to fight for a win, with Nora (Laura Dern) and Jay (Ray Liotta) unleashing vicious attacks on their behalfs.
Yet the truth is more complex. There is no taking sides when they are both trying their best with impossible choices set in their paths. Custody and the material losses are just the tip of what they are giving up in a divorce. They are letting go of the haircuts, the laughs, and the untouched tea cups around the house.
When it is all over, gone will be the things that they once shared as a family, and that only they would know about. It is almost as though the two are playing the long game, just so they can hold onto the love they have had for a decade, if only for a second more.
The agony of such all builds up to an inevitable and irrevocable outburst. All it took was a singular moment to leave scars behind, scars that remain even if forgiveness does eventually heal the wounds. Driver and Johansson break hearts in this intensely evocative climax, powerfully acted and as such, devastating.
A painful finality lies in their decision to part from there on, but that is not where the story ends. Noah Baumbach grants them a bittersweet closure as they both move on, forward into their new lives, a tacit understanding promising that even the deepest cuts will fade in time.
Marriage Story paints an authentic and emotionally raw portrait of love lost, with heartfelt honesty and compassion.