Did you know that it has been 22 years since a film picked up both Best Actor and Best Actress at the Academy Awards? Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt enjoyed a double win back in 1997 for As Good As It Gets, and in the 90-plus year history of the awards ,there have only been seven other occasions where the feat has been achieved. From Silence Of The Lambs to Network to On Golden Pond to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, one thing that this special group of movies have in common is that they are brilliant, and I’m so pleased to report that I think Marriage Story is probably destined to join the party.
Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story is an achingly superb ‘dramedy’ that tracks the divorce and custody battle of Charlie and Nicole Barber (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson). What begins as an amicable split soon descends into a stressful mess of lawyer tactics and influences, and as an audience member you are given no choice but to be swept up in an awful portrait of how averagely decent people can turn to the dark arts in the face of losing everything they have.
The big dramatic arguments are the moments that are going to be most memorable in Marriage Story, but what makes it pretty much a perfect film experience is that those crescendos are connected by smaller, quieter, delicate, bittersweetly funny scenes that show us the process of divorce and dismantling a relationship isn’t just about those large scale confrontations.
The obvious comparison the film will draw is probably Kramer vs. Kramer, but the beauty of Marriage Story, and the reason for its joint lead awards hype, is that it provides a much fuller picture of both sides of the argument, to massively satisfying and rewarding effect. In a more abstract way, the film actually evokes a little bit of La La Land for me as well. The rise and fall of a romance with themes of theatre and show business front and centre immediately put me in mind of Damien Chazelle’s 2016 masterpiece, and we are even treated to a hugely poignant performance of Being Alive from Company by Adam Driver. It’s almost too good to be true!
From moment to moment the film takes you through the range of emotions, one second you are on Charlie’s side, the next second on Nicole’s. This isn’t a story about a divorce where there is one single thing or person to blame, absolutely nothing is clear cut and the nuance and delicacy of the story telling is so, so impressive. It sounds a completely paradoxical thing to say, but Marriage Story proves to be both a soothing and painful watch. Only the very best films can successfully give you both ends of the spectrum.
Let’s get to those performances, then, shall we? It’s without doubt that they are career bests for both Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver. As Nicole, a one time movie star who sacrificed her Hollywood career for her husband’s Broadway ambitions, Johansson achieves levels and depths that we haven’t seen from her before. I might not be the biggest fan of some of the things she has to say in real life, but there is absolutely nothing I can criticise in her work here.
As Charlie, Adam Driver is perhaps even better than his co-star, and that is really saying something. A New York theatre director travelling from coast to coast trying to preserve both his career and any semblance of family life with his son, Charlie’s on screen journey is arguably the ‘tougher’ one, but having said that, he perhaps did more within the marriage to warrant its end. With all this nuance in mind, Driver is absolutely phenomenal in the role. Together, the two actors are absolute dynamite, it’s a pleasure to watch their drama unfold and it’s going to take something really extraordinary to knock either of them off the awards podiums this season. Whether Johansson’s unwavering defences and support of controversial friend Woody Allen turn enough voters off to hamper her chances, only time will tell.
The same could be said for some of the supporting categories too, notably Laura Dern as Nicole’s high flying, laser focused lawyer Nora Fanshaw. Dern plays slightly ‘against type’ as the loop hole finding, word twisting attorney, and she pretty much steals every scene that she’s in.
Overall, it’s safe to say that Marriage Story is going to be one of my favourite movies of the year. Every now and then a film comes along that just immediately feels ‘special’, and this is absolutely one of those. It’s a picture about something very specific, a divorce, that through amazing writing and career defining performances is transformed into a universal journey of themes and emotions that are absolutely irresistible. I cannot wait until this drop on Netflix so I can watch it two, three, four times more.