Marriage Story (5 stars)

Marriage Story

LFF 2019: Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver are astonishing in Noah Baumbach's masterful divorce drama

Drawing on its creator's own and observed experience, Marriage Story gets stuck into the difficult business of divorce with sensational results. Playing Nicole and Charlie, Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver invest their emotional disintegration with raw authenticity, while Noah Baumbach combines Woody Allen-style irreverence with the no-holds-barred naturalism of John Cassavetes.

Beginning, seemingly, in the throes of blissful adoration, with a montage of things they love about one another, we hit earth with a bump when it's revealed these lists have been compiled for a meeting to discuss the couple's separation. Nicole is a former film actress who turned to the stage to please theatre director Charlie and is now regretting it. When their communication breaks down, Nicole moves from New York to LA for work and the pair squabble over son Henry (Azhy Robertson) before finding themselves swept up in a brutal system, with their misery mined for profit by cutthroat legal professionals; 'This is a street fight now,' explains Laura's Dern's slick, ostensibly compassionate lawyer.

Baumbach and cinematographer Robbie Ryan show flexibility in their approach – the look of the film is crisp, clean and, as the situation sours, sometimes appropriately cool. It can also be hilarious and devastating, discreet and confrontational as it deals with the chaos of family and the chill of loneliness and throws in heartbreaking moments of tenderness and residual affection. There are even a couple of musical numbers.

But it's a film that's all about the performances. Johansson remains sympathetic even as she hides behind her attack-dog lawyer, her face crumpling in shows of private pain. She bags the movie's best scene too, recounting the pair's ups and downs to a rapt Dern. Casually superior and critical, Charlie should be less likeable but Driver brings affable charm and poignantly captures Charlie's disbelief when his family slips from his grasp. Baumbach knows he's got gold here and, as emotions are unleashed and the arguing gets ugly, he lets several key sequences unfold at length; the effect is astonishing. It's an actor's dream.

Screening on Sun 6, Mon 7 and Fri 11 Oct as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2019. General release from Fri 15 Nov and on Netflix from Fri 6 Dec.

Marriage Story

  • 5 stars
  • 2019
  • US
  • 2h 16min
  • Directed by: Noah Baumbach
  • Cast: Merritt Wever, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern
  • UK release: 6 December 2019

Nicole (Johansson) and Charlie (Driver) are a married couple separating, squabbling over their son Henry (Robertson). Baumbach’s approach is variously cool, clean, hilarious, devastating, discreet and confrontational; Johansson remains sympathetic even as she hides behind her lawyer, while Driver brings affable charm.

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