By John H. Foote
Divorce can be an ugly, vicious event in the lives of two people who were once in love. Everything they have experienced together, good and bad, can be used as a weapon against them by the other party, distorted, twisted until they do not recognize the person they were married too.
Noah Baumbach, who directed and wrote this absolutely brilliant film, explored the divorce of his parents in the equally sublime, The Squid and the Whale (2005) which was criminally snubbed by the Academy. This time, he explores his own marriage and divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh, never shying away from the intense, white-hot nerve centres of what they must have done to each other. The courage of what Baumbach has done with this picture is overwhelming. Some divorces are amicable, the decision is made that the couple can no longer exist together, but for some, their lives are turned into a war zone. Territories are claimed, children (if any) are turned against parents by the other parent, friends are forced to choose a side, and the ugliest personality traits of either partner is there, just below the surface, ready to explode outward.
Movies have often explored the staggering impact of divorce, best of all in An Unmarried Woman (1978), the Oscar-winning Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) and the aforementioned The Squid and the Whale (2005). That trio represents three superb films but I think this new film, Marriage Story, goes deeper, explores the fragility of a partnership with a biting honesty, and shows that even people who truly care for one another are capable of inflicting terrible pain on each other.
Charlie (Adam Driver) is a gifted New York stage director who built a theatre with plays featuring his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), a formerly successful actress from LA who transplanted herself to New York after falling in love with Charlie. They have a child but are struggling as a couple as she feels forgotten as his career has taken off and she suspects he is sleeping with his stage manager. When she gets an offer from Hollywood, she wants to do it, but Charlie has no interest in working on the West Coast. She goes with her son, and at the urging of a friend goes to see Nora Fanshawe (Laura Deren) an aggressive, competitive, “take no prisoners” attorney. When Charlie arrives to visit his son, she has him served with divorce papers setting in motion a vicious battle between husband and wife.
Knowing he needs a lawyer to fight for his rights he visits Jay (Ray Liotta) another competitive, highly aggressive man, but the high price of the retainer and Jay’s destructive attitude scares Charlie off. He settles on the grandfatherly Spitz (Alan Alda), a decent, good man not out to ruin anyone, just protect Charlie.
Though Charlie and Nicole initially felt they could settle this out of court it becomes clear they cannot and each watches as their lawyers dredge up behaviour and events from the past to use against both parents. It becomes fierce, ugly, and twisted. One wonders: how two people who once loved one another could be so vile to each other? How will they even begin to share parenthood once this is over?
Baumbach brings a startling intimacy to the film that leaves the viewer thinking they are eavesdropping on life. I felt bad for each character, was embarrassed for both Charlie and Nicole, and when each broke, I felt deep compassion for each. It is a delicate bit of directing, but the director brilliantly guides the actors with a unique truth.
Adam Driver, by now is regarded as one of the finest new actors of his generation. The former marine, exploded to fame on HBO’s Girls as Adam, the boyfriend to a couple of the girls. On-screen he has worked for no less than Martin Scorsese in the quietly remarkable Silence (2016) and entered into film history as Kylo Ren, the villain in the new Star Wars films from J. J. Abrams. Last year he was an Oscar nominee for the first time in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman (correct spelling!) as a white Jewish cop trying to get undercover into the inner circle of the Ku Klux Klan.
His performance as Charlie is heartbreaking in its transparency and realism, bringing to the screen anger, bewilderment, deep hurt, and staggering pain. At one point he is overwhelmed by the divorce proceedings and the unnecessary pain they are inflicting on one another and he breaks down weeping, the sobs erupting from his very soul. Driver will undoubtedly receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor, and at this writing has become the frontrunner.
What a year Scarlett Johansson is having! A splendid comedic performance in Jojo Rabbit should land her in the race for Best Supporting Actress, and her stunning performance in Marriage Story will make her a major Academy Award contender as Best Actress.
Since her breakthrough in The Horse Whisperer (1998) and more so Ghost World (2001) the actress has put together an impressive filmography of work, both critically acclaimed and box office hits, but she has never been an Oscar nominee. She certainly should have been as the lonely newlywed in Lost in Translation (2003), the raging other women in Match Point (2005), the mysterious alien in Under the Skin (2014), and the superhuman Lucy (2014). She gave a lovely performance in The Nanny Diaries (2007) and was a wonderfully caustic Esther Williams type movie star in Hail Caesar (2016), as well as being a superhero, Black Widow in The Avengers and Marvel Cinematic Universe. Johansson is a huge movie star, but it is often forgotten what a superb actress she can be.
As Nicole, fighting for her identity, she is brilliant, capturing the uncertainty and sadness of a young wife and mother who feels invisible and overshadowed by her husband. This is a major piece of acting that will be discussed for many years to come and could win the actress a much deserved Oscar for Best Actress.
Laura Dern is a ferocious force of nature as Nora, lawyer of Nicole, another in an array of incredible performances the actress has given. Her speech, her great moment in the film is a searing sequence that will land her in the race for Best Supporting Actress.
Count on seeing Alan Alda among the nominees as well for his gentle, steely attorney who has seen far too much pain in the divorces he has handled.
Marriage Story is an American masterpiece, the second this year from Netflix and on the road to Oscar nominations. It should be nominated in every major category, and just might take home a few.
A powerful, often bittersweet film that ends with a gesture of hope among the carnage. Truly breathtaking
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”