LFF 2019: Marriage Story

Powerful performances from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson can't disguise a certain staleness in Noah Baumbach's latest film

Film Review by Carmen Paddock | 09 Oct 2019
  • Marriage Story
Film title: Marriage Story
Director: Noah Baumbach
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Azhy Robertson, Laura Dern, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Alan Alda, Mary Hollis Inboden, Wallace Shawn, Merritt Wever
Release date: 15 Nov (cinemas); 6 Dec (streaming)
Certificate: 15

How does one make a film about white, middle-class, heterosexual relationship woes fresh and new? In the case of Marriage Story, that question is not answered. This severely hampers Netflix’s awards season contender; audiences have seen this divorce narrative – the happy moments barely feature – play out in endless variations across cinematic history. Emotional beats thus feel predictable as Nicole (Johansson) and Charlie (Driver) hurtle towards their divorce, and the quirky clichés of the supporting roles are straight out of Noah Baumbach’s previous work.

That said, the central performances are faultless, and the writing keeps audiences on both parties’ sides as their separation takes on new complications. Johannson’s Nicole plays off determination and frustration as her goal becomes increasingly unstable, and Driver may have reached his career peak as Charlie’s demons threaten to destroy the little peace he has left. His rendition of Stephen Sondheim's Being Alive may be one of the plot’s more artificial points, but its balance of soulfulness and self-awareness prove genuinely poignant.

Both actors naturally match each other’s energy in tender and tempestuous moments, though Driver can get to the climactic pitch too quickly and for too long to sustain dramatic tension. In the supporting cast, Laura Dern shines as Nicole’s dogged lawyer, but her similarity to Renata Klein – her character from HBO's Big Little Lies – is distracting, if delightful.  

Baumbach has directed an ideal film for the streaming platform. This is an intimate piece with gripping performances yet a purposefully mundane setting; perfect for living room viewing. In this regard, it is one of Netflix’s strongest original films – nothing will be lost in the viewing experience as it delivers tour de force performances to subscribers. While the score brings the wrong type of made-for-TV energy, the camera’s careful focus on faces – and who remains in focus at what moment – is evidence of the film’s craftsmanship.

Marriage Story had its UK premiere at London Film Festival and is released in the UK by Netflix