Marriage Story shows how love and a relationship between two people endures even after it has officially ended. Charlie and Nicole Barber learn this all too acutely as they initiate their own separation, a conflict at the center of Noah Baumbach’s new film Marriage Story. Charlie (Adam Driver) is a theatre director helming a company which is steadily growing in renown; Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is an actress and one of the company’s stars. One recurring thought that Baumbach keeps returning to over the course of the film’s runtime is how, even with everyone else that becomes involved in the legal complications of the divorce itself, the actual act of moving forward from a marriage can only concern the two people getting divorced in the first place. “Eventually this will all be over,” says Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), Charlie’s first divorce lawyer. “Whether we win or lose, it’ll be the two of you having to figure this out together.”
Consequentially, the film mostly regards both Charlie and Nicole with a sense of impartiality: two people caught in an unfortunate situation who must rely on each other once again to work it out. Both of them have valid reasons for being angry at each other and at the process of their divorce in general, so much so that it is impossible for the viewer to choose which one is more “correct.” “I was never alive for myself; I was only feeding his aliveness!” Nicole confesses to her divorce lawyer Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern); meanwhile, Charlie insinuates that Nicole only likes complaining about the fact that she has no voice or independence rather than actually obtaining it. The lawyers who represent the two (Nora, Bert and Jay Marotta, played by Ray Liotta) do nothing to help matters, each portraying the other as negatively as possible to win their respective demands. The legal bickering finally explodes into Charlie and Nicole’s own discourse; in a nearly 10-minute scene (with some incredible acting from Driver and Johansson), Charlie and Nicole decide to friendly discuss their separation away from the vitriol of their lawyers, only to have it devolve into a frightening screaming match which manages to exhume every personal grievance the two harbor against each other. By the end of it, both of them are sobbing and holding each other, simply wanting to do what they think is best; both of them and neither of them can really be held accountable for what has happened at the same time, a conclusion the film reinforces with effortless mastery.
From start to finish, Baumbach’s direction and writing are almost flawless; the smoothness of the screenplay and its dialogue belie how harrowing the events depicted actually are, not only for the characters but also for the audience. One of Marriage Story’s greatest strengths is the relativity of its humor; the funniest lines take on a much darker aspect when they are put into context as Nicole and Charlie navigate through the cavalcade of lawyers and evaluators which surround them. This darker tone also manifests itself in the film’s cinematography, which is brilliantly expressive in and of itself. As the legal divorce proceedings and emotional chaos contained therein begin to escalate, there exists a tangible tension and suspense within each scene beautifully underscored by this camera work as well as the acting; Driver and Johansson, along with Dern, Alda and Liotta, give incredible performances with vast ranges of emotion which make the film believable. Marriage Story is simply a snapshot of two intertwined lives, which could just as easily capture the experience of other people with its universality.
Charlie and Nicole finally negotiate everything and sign the official divorce papers, but there is absolutely no resolution which comes out of it. Their separation might be legally complete, but they will never truly be able to rid themselves of their shared experiences, the memories and feelings of which will never truly leave them. It is one of the only unambiguous truths of the entire film — and maybe that is the happiest part of all.
John Colie is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.