My freshly divorced mate cancelled our plans to see Marriage Story at the last minute.
After viewing the trailer online he messaged me and said, “Upon further consideration, no f—–g way”.
It was probably a fair call. This deep dive into marriage breakdown will certainly trigger a heart-lurch in anyone who has gone through a painful relationship implosion.
But to avoid Marriage Story would be a shame, because it is one of the year’s most incredible films and Netflix’s biggest Oscars hope yet.
It tells the story of Charlie (Adam Driver), an avant-garde New York theatre director and wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an ex-Hollywood film actor who gave up her life on the west coast to join Charlie’s theatre company.
Despite still caring for one another, their relationship has run its course.
They want different lives and they are attempting to navigate a gentle separation for their son’s sake.
But when lawyers become involved they find themselves doing things they never thought they’d do.
The reason Marriage Story resonates is because it’s nuanced.
There’s no clear good guy or bad guy.
Both characters are charming people with good intentions, who make very human mistakes along the way. You can empathise with everyone involved.
The writer’s searing insight means the script is littered with relatable relationship breakdown moments that will sucker-punch you every now and then.
The movie finely balances pleasure and pain, just like many relationships.
Instead of being a steadily gut-wrenching film like other works in the divorce canon – looking at you, Kramer vs Kramer – there is just enough humour and life-affirming kindness to act as a balm for the painful bits.
It’s not the total emotional bin-fire my friend feared.
Disney/Pixar favourite Randy Newman has composed a score that lends jauntiness when required, and there are bursts of (actual) song and dance to provide a reprieve from the heavy dialogue.
Both Johansson and Driver have rightly generated ‘Oscars buzz’. They are natural, intense, hilarious and heartbreaking.
The leads are beautifully supported by Laura Dern as Nicole’s ruthless attorney (look out for her high-octane monologue about God and motherhood, which has been met with applause at screenings), and the superbly laconic Alan Alda as Charlie’s lawyer.
The film is being heralded as Noah Baumbach’s best film.
The writer/director also tackled divorce – from the children’s perspective – in 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, and Marriage Story is understood to be partly inspired by his split from actor Jennifer Jason Leigh.
As a director, Baumbach has a reputation as a perfectionist who shoots a huge number of takes.
This method took its toll on the actors in one intense scene where Charlie and Nicole eventually thrash it out in a room by themselves.
The emotionally gruelling 10-minute scene was rehearsed and filmed over a week, with both Johansson and Driver repeatedly going to places of extreme anguish and anger.
Driver described the experience as “exhausting” to The Hollywood Reporter and Johansson recalls Baumbach bought them each a bottle of wine afterwards, “which I probably immediately uncorked”.
But the result of this meticulous style of directing is a truly visceral scene that will stay with you long after the credits have rolled.
Interestingly, Baumbach describes his latest cinematic offering as “a love story about divorce”, telling the Los Angeles Times “it’s about a couple coming apart in divorce, but also a family coming together in a new way post-divorce”.
That fits with reviewer G Allen Johnson’s pretty perfect summary of Marriage Story as “a film about divorce that celebrates life’s journeys”.
Indeed, the film begins with a sunny montage that would live happily in any rom-com.
In it, Nicole and Charlie take turns reading letters where they describe all the things they adore and admire about each other.
Later in the film, Alda’s character describes divorce as “like a death without a body”.
With that quote in mind, these opening love letters represent what is at the heart of Baumbach’s remarkable film – a loving eulogy for a relationship that is no longer.
Marriage Story is showing in limited cinemas before it rolls out on Netflix on December 6