When Martin Scorsese announced that he was making The Irishman with his long-time muse Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino together, cinephiles all over the world rejoiced. The legendary actors coming together after years to create the masterpiece of the decade. And the film lived up to the hype.
However, what cinephiles did not anticipate that a comparatively smaller, Indie film about a couple’s divorce would become so popular that its ripples would eventually upstage the magnum opus itself. Noah Baumbach's Marriage Story, a story which literally starts when the marriage ends, stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver.
The dark horse of the year, Johansson had just shaken the world with Natasha Romanoff's death in Avengers: Endgame. Her other film, Taika Waititi's Jojo Rabbit was much more anticipated. And coming to Driver, who would have known he would upstage De Niro, though the latter claimed that he was this federation’s finest? On Monday, the film bagged six Golden Gobe nominations including Best Actor, Actress, Film and Screenplay, defeating the Irishman.
Marriage Story, which premiered first in Venice Film Festival in August travelled the world with strong reviews from each screening, including the Mumbai Film Festival. The Netflix film has a limited theatrical release on November 6, and finally dropped on the streaming site on December 6th.
The film tracks the life of a theater actress Nicole and her director husband Charlie. They share a son Henry. Nicole and Charlie are separating because Nicole, who was a successful actress in Los Angeles has got a great offer to revive her career but Charlie is less than supportive. The separation is a new path of self-discovery for Nicole, who has been living her life according to her husband for long. But it is also extremely heartbreaking for her, as seen in the brilliantly executed monologue delivered by Johansson, where she tells her lawyer, played by Laura Dern, what went wrong. This is Johansson’s moment.
Nicole and Charlie get dragged into the ugly mess of legalities. They push each other under the bus. One wishes death on the other. There is this very pivotal scene where Nicole and Charlie are screaming at each other. He accuses her of using him to have a life in LA. She accuses him of gaslighting her. They say the most horrible things to each other, after which being friends is not possible. That scene is also the turning point from the audience’s perspective- you don’t root for them as a couple anymore. There is just too much ugliness.
Having their child stuck in the ugly mess only makes the process a thousand fold more complicated and painful. Henry, played by the little Azhy Robertson portrays perfectly the confusion of belonging nowhere. The scene where he holds on to his mother, while his father is tugging him too is subtle, but heartbreaking nonetheless. He is also imperative in bringing out the humane side of Charlie, whose biggest fear is to lose his son.
Adam Driver, however, is the star of the show. He goes from the stoic director with a baritone, to the man who struggles to hold his tears back like it is a ballet choreography. His moment is the scene in a bar where he breaks into Stephen Sondheim’s Being Alive, when confronted by his friends about his feelings. The camera pans around him as he sings about wanting someone, and everyone else in the frame disappears like it is magic.
The reason why the film is resonating so well with the audience and juries of prestigious award ceremonies is probably much more than the flawless performances by the actors (including Laura Dern who has bagged a nomination for the Best Actress in a Supporting Role).
The film resonates because it is relatable. Director-writer Noah Baumbach wrote the screenplay based on his divorce with actress Jennifer Jason Leigh and his own parents' divorce. In the USA, where the film is based divorce rates are quite high, in India not as much. But people around the world are relating to the story of a relationship that has love in it but as Nicole says “it doesn’t make sense anymore."
Marriage Story doesn’t make you wish the couple were together, it doesn’t make them magically realise their love for each other like in many films, because that is not how life works. The film also does not show divorce as a social evil that spoils the sanctity of marriage. It shows divorce as the organic solution to freedom of people unhappy in a relationship. The secret to Marriage Story lies in the simplicity. The filmmaker merely observes his characters' grief. He makes us a part of it but he does not shove it down our throats.
For people who got a chance to watch the film on the silver screen, there was not a single dry eye in the theatre. Scarlett Johansson has finally shed her Black Widow stereotype and the film has only begun, what can be said as the era of Adam Driver. Needless to say, this film might not have Irish and Italian gangs, guns, betrayal and legends, but it will be remembered for a long long time.
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