In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy shared his wisdom that “happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”. 140 years later in Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach ignited the silver screen with a splendid, bittersweet rendition of the Tolstoy wisdom.
Marriage Story begins with much promise, as all marriages invariably do, with Charlie (Adam Driver) lovingly describing in the opening voice-over all that glitters about Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). With glowing praise (from “she really listens when someone is talking”, to “she is a mother who plays, really plays”), he divulges a world where Nicole is at its epicentre. In equally tender measure, Nicole’s effervescence over Charlie (“Charlie is undaunted… he loves being a dad”) will have you wondering if this is indeed the divorce saga that the trailer led us to believe. The film then flashes to the present, showing a distraught Nicole refusing to recite her letter aloud in a counselling session. Only then does it dawn that this is no ordinary manifesto of love, but a delicately calibrated tale of spiralling loss and unintended collateral damage.
Therein lies the insidiousness of marriage, and its many ugly facades when love is no longer simply… love.
The success of Marriage Story in no small part hinges on its superb cast, with Driver (of the Paterson fame) and Johansson delivering personal best performances in a film that is so integrally woven with the likeability and relatability of both characters. Charlie is the everyday husband, an acclaimed theatre director, a seemingly model dad, and yet a somewhat aloof partner who has fallen into the all-too-common trap of taking marriage for granted. Nicole was once a rising actress in hometown Los Angeles, whose career has taken a backseat to assist her husband’s fledgling stage company in New York and to raise their eight year old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). As he opens a new play on Broadway, she decides to assert her independence and relocate with her son to star in a TV pilot in LA.
Whilst the story so far treads benign territory, matrimonial tensions quickly surface during Nicole’s faultless soliloquy of a self-effacing wife. Prodded by fiery lawyer Nora (Laura Dern), she lets unravel the genesis of her unhappiness, declaring that despite the love for the man she married, time has all but erased her sense of self-love and self-worth. With gut-wrenching clarity she ultimately recognises the power imbalance that exemplifies marriages the world over, “I realised I didn’t ever really come alive for myself. I was just feeding his aliveness”. Many a feminist heart would have shattered along with hers at that very moment (particularly thereafter as Nicole infers that Charlie may have been unfaithful).
It would have been easy to paint a clear villain in all of this. However, Baumbach showcases great restraint in refusing to draw sides in complex domestic affairs that inevitably bear no winners. Instead he chooses to bring to life the intelligent and good-natured Charlie, whose human fallibility is every bit as endearing as his desire to minimise acrimony in the fall-out. His love and care for Nicole and Henry is palpable throughout the film. He remains an unwilling participant in a deepening saga that has taken on a life of its own, exacerbated by a system that is dictated by legal wins versus emotional ones.
The film shows that two good people don’t necessarily make a good marriage; nor is divorce a death knell for long-held feelings of care and respect. And in its closing scenes, Baumbach skilfully transports us back to the Tolstoy adage, where we are treated to the heart-warming sense of family happiness as Charlie ultimately reads aloud Nicole’s praises of him as a (now former) husband, and a (loving) father to their son.
Rewatchability Index: 4.5/5.
Charlie: What I love about Nicole. She makes people feel comfortable about even embarrassing things. She really listens when someone is talking. Sometimes she listens too much for too long. She’s a good citizen. She always knows the right thing to do when it comes to difficult family sh*t. I get stuck in my ways, and she knows when to push me, and when to leave me alone. She cuts all our hair. She’s always inexplicably brewing a cup of tea that she doesn’t drink. And it’s not easy for her to put away a sock, or close a cabinet, or do a dish, but she tries for me. Nicole grew up in LA around actors, and directors, and movies, and TV, and is very close to her mother, Sandra, and Cassie, her sister.
Nicole gives great presents. She is a mother who plays, really plays. She never steps off playing, or says it’s too much. And it must be too much some of the time. She’s competitive. She’s amazing at opening jars because of her strong arms, which I’ve always found very sexy. She keeps the fridge over-full. No one is ever hungry in our house. She can drive a stick. After that movie, All Over The Girl, she could have stayed in LA and been a movie star, but she gave that up to do theatre with me in New York. She’s brave. She’s a great dancer. Infectious. She makes me wish I could dance. She always says when she doesn’t know something, or hasn’t read a book, or seen a film, or a play, whereas I fake it, or say something like, “I haven’t seen it in a while.” My crazy ideas are her favourite things to figure out how to execute. She’s my favourite actress.
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Nicole: What I love about Charlie. Charlie is undaunted. He never lets other people’s opinions, or any setbacks keep him from what he wants to do. Charlie eats like he’s trying to get it over with, and like there won’t be enough food for everyone. A sandwich is to be strangled while devoured. But he’s incredibly neat, and I rely on him to keep things in order. He’s energy-conscious. He doesn’t look in the mirror too often.
He cries easily in movies. He’s very self-sufficient. He can darn a sock, and cook himself dinner, and iron a shirt. He rarely gets defeated, which I feel like I always do. Charlie takes all of my moods steadily. He doesn’t give in to them, or make me feel bad about them. He’s a great dresser. He never looks embarrassing, which is hard for a man. He’s very competitive. He loves being a dad. He loves all the things you’re supposed to hate, like the tantrums, the waking up at night. It’s almost annoying how much he likes it, but then it’s mostly nice.
He disappears into his own world. He and Henry are alike in that way. He can tell people when they have food in their teeth, or on their face in a way that doesn’t make them feel bad. Charlie is self-made. His parents, I only met them once, but he told me there was a lot of alcohol, and some violence in his childhood. He moved to New York from Indiana with no safety net, and now he’s more New Yorker than any New Yorker. He’s brilliant at creating family out of whoever is around. With the theatre company, he cast a spell that made everyone feel included. No one, not even an intern, was unimportant. He could remember all the inside jokes. He’s extremely organised and thorough. He’s very clear about what he wants, unlike me, who can’t always tell.
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Nicole: [to Nora] In the beginning, I was the actress, the star, and that felt like something, you know. People came to see me at first, but the farther away I got from that, and the more acclaim the theatre company got, I had less and less weight. I just became, “Who?” “Well, you know, the actress that was in that thing that time.” And he was the draw. And that would’ve been fine, but I got smaller. I realised I didn’t ever really come alive for myself. I was just feeding his aliveness.
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Charlie: [Reading Nicole’s letter] He could remember all the inside jokes. He’s extremely organised and thorough. He’s very clear about what he wants, unlike me, who can’t always tell. I fell in love with him two seconds after I saw him. And I’ll never stop loving him, even though it doesn’t make sense anymore.