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Review: Marriage Story (2019)

Updated on August 2, 2020
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I'm a former film student of 6 years with a bachelors degree in film production and screenwriting.

Tables turned.

Noah Baumach first approached the subject of divorce with his film 'Squid and the Whale' - a film centred around the matter through the eyes of the children. 'Marriage Story' depicts similar events through the eyes of the parents as they stumble through an intense legal process turning what was always expected to be an amicable divorce into a personal feud. Neither Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) or Charlie (Adam Driver) are perfect yet both obviously admire each other for the most part as we learn through an opening montage as they recite each others observable qualities both honestly and warmly. However, only a few minutes in we realise it's already nearly too late for them as we find them with their mediator who insists that they must read aloud their letters to each other. Instantly the two react completely differently. Nicole staunchly refusing to read her letter in front of perfectionist, play director Charlie who is more than happy to share his feelings for Nicole. Right from the get-go it's clear that both Nicole and Charlie are right on the money in each others readings of the other being highly competitive, something which becomes wholly destructive once the two seek out their respective lawyers and begin to gather their ammunition.

Too similar, too different.


The theatre of conflict.

Charlie is a self-made theatre director and Nicole, his favourite actress. Avoiding the trap of Charlie being an out and out narcissist, Baumbach writes Charlie as a flawed but charismatic character. He's both lovable and self-interested, warm and distant. He charms with his humour and inclusivity, he's built a family out of his theatre troupe and he's insanely popular. Nicole is just as successful as Charlie, before she became the star of his theatre productions she was a one-time star of the silver screen whilst living in LA and now pulls in as much of a crowd as Charlie. She is not only talented but a natural mother who takes a deep interest in everything her son says and does - play time is just as much play time for her as it is for her son.

The three live together in New York, on the opposite side of the country to Nicole's Mother, Sandra (Julie Hagerty) and Sister, Cassie (Merritt Wever) with their eight year old son, Henry (Azhy Robertson). It sounds like the makings of a perfect marriage, a couple and their child living their dream of owning their own production company in NYC and enjoying success after success. But over the years, differences of opinion, familial ties, wondering eyes and criticism have swept away the foundations or their relationship, leaving the instinctual feeling that neither are right for one and other.

He didn't see me as something seperate from himself.

- Nicole Barber

The Nuclear family.

Nicole, whilst returning to LA to shoot a promising TV pilot is introduced to Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), a razor sharp divorce lawyer, who quickly becomes not only Nicole's lawyer, but confidant. Nicole is determined to build her own life, completely independent of Charlie and the plans she felt compelled to go along with in the wake of their divorce. Following a scene which masterfully weavers humour and sadness hilarious in which Nicole serves Charlie the divorce papers Charlie's world begins to unravel as he finds himself in a blind rush to obtain a lawyer. Nora quickly asserts herself and warns Charlie of the risk he is running being slow to act to find a lawyer, prompting Charlie to drag Henry around to Lawyer offices, taking up the little time they have to spend together.

Finding himself running out of options, Charlie hires a kindly, semi retired lawyer; Bert Spitz (Alan Alda) who has his heart in exactly the right place but isn't hard enough to contend with Nora's cunning. Charlie, needing 'his own asshole' enlists Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta), a hardened and ruthless lawyer eventually turning court proceedings for joint custody of Henry into a "street fight" where everything from personal genius to love itself is reduced to an 'asset' and bitterly fought over.

Street fight.


If we start from a place of reasonable, and they start from a place of crazy, when we settle, we'll be somewhere between reasonable and crazy.

- Jay Marotta


With Nicole wanting her and Henry's new life to be in LA, closer to her family and career prospects and Charlie protesting both sides of the divide are stretched to breaking point. Increasingly intense arguments boil over and every tiny thing that is said and done is later utilised as courtroom ammunition by Nora and Jay. The insults become more personal, finances are drained and saddest of all Henry and Charlie's time together is overshadowed by stress. Yet amongst the chaos, 'Marriage Story' succeeds in nimbly weaving tone by blending hilarity and sweetness with tragedy and despair.

Humour is even found in particularly upsetting scenes of Charlie and Nicole bickering over 'turns' to have care of Henry for a day. The mood of the film never feels like it's flowing too quickly to keep up or that either parties emotions are fickle. Instead we are encouraged to notice the desperation of the situation as the motive force for the conflict and both Nicole and Charlie, imperfect as they are, are meerly trapped in the eye of the storm.

The break up of a marriage and the staying together of a family.


A film about love and family.

A musical element is also subtly deployed throughout, with song's by Randy Newman helping to deliver an extra emotional punch, but ultimately the song "Being Alive" from the Stephen Sondheim comedy “Company,” provides the most profound and personal character moment in the movie. Some superb cinematography that would surely make Wes Anderson smile highlights the internal emotional struggle of the subjects through their placement in the frame. However the narrative and tonal flow and expert comedic timing will likely leave the biggest impression and compel audiences to take the emotional journey with two astoundingly well rounded characters. This movie is brimming with great performances with Laura Dern winning the Oscar for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Nicole's shrewd lawyer, Nora.

Ultimately, I feel that the two best performances come from Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver who fully embrace the anger, flaws and residual love that both Nicole and Charlie wrestle with throughout the movie and do so in a way that presents a highly contentious subject in todays society with fairness. Noah Baumbach's clearly autobiographical 'Marriage Story' is deeply moving, sweet and compelling movie which should not be missed.


5 stars for Marriage Story

Marriage Story Trailer


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