The movie, starring Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson, tells the universal human story of learning to let go with beautifully executed finesse and subtlety.
The romance of divorce
Film review: Marriage Story - Lanz Aaron G. Tan (The Philippine Star) - February 8, 2020 - 12:00am

Is it possible to still love someone if there’s no future in sight? Is it truly better, as Alfred Lord Tennyson once quipped, to have loved and lost, than to never have loved at all? Marriage Story, directed by Noah Baumbach, is a romance about divorce, and it doesn’t only pose these questions — it explores them with heartfelt sincerity and thoughtful nuance, the likes of which may not be seen again on screen for years.

From its snappy dual opening monologues to its emotionally resonant finale, Marriage Story is an exercise in powerful writing, beautiful editing and clearly thought-out characters embodied by masterful performances (with Adam Driver as Charlie and Scarlett Johansson as Nicole). Both Adam and Scarlett have deservedly received awards attention, and Oscar nominations for the pair are close to an inevitability.

One of the themes of Marriage Story is finding the humanity in a deeply depersonalizing process — to identify gray-area emotions between love and indifference. It explores this theme through court hearings, where two once-lovers must settle their most personal disputes in the most detached legal proceedings, where all rulings are decided by a crowd of strangers. This effect is compounded by editing to create powerful shots, such as one where both characters’ silhouettes are superimposed on either side of the screen; they look directly at each other, but could not be further separated.

Among other messages, Marriage Story also explores the difficulty of raising a child through a divorce and the conflicts created by diverging career-interests in a relationship. It’s about the smallest cracks of misunderstandings that can grow to fracture a marriage once thought unbreakable.

Marriage Story operates at its best when it focuses on minute details; what makes Noah’s script so intricate is its layers of thought — it breathes life into characters that are soberingly realistic from their habits to the choices they make. The motivations behind Nicole’s and Charlie’s decisions — while not always clear to each other — are always vivid to the audience, and that makes it possible to root for both sides of the same conflict.

Noah shoots on grainy 35mm film, which grants Marriage Story its characteristic small-screen intimacy. But despite its small scale (in scope and screen size), Marriage Story tells the universal human story of learning to let go with beautifully executed finesse and subtlety.

Marriage Story is available on Netflix.

(E-mail comments to lanzaarontan@college.harvard.edu or follow @LanzAaronGTan1 on Twitter.)

ALFRED LORD TENNYSON NOAH BAUMBACH
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