‘Marriage Story’ review: tear-stained break-up drama will have you in floods

Noah Baumbach brings clarity to chaos in one of the year's best films

Get the hankies at the ready. Noah Baumbach’s searing examination of a marital break-up, Marriage Story, is tailor-made to bring great swathes of the watery stuff streaming down your cheeks.

No stranger to thumbing the back pages of his life for inspiration, Baumbach’s parents’ divorce first informed his celebrated 2005 drama The Squid and the Whale. Here, the filmmaker uses that memory to even greater effect. Script-wise, Marriage Story showcases greater maturity, capped off by stunning lead turns from Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson. In one scene, theatre director Charlie (Driver) lists the things that he loves about his wife, Nicole (Johansson). “She’s a great dancer. Infectious. She is a mother who plays, really plays. She gives great presents. She’s competitive. She knows when to push me, and when to leave me alone.” He goes on to list more traits. Nicole, a jobbing actor who often appears in her husband’s plays, then offers the same in return. But all is not as it seems. Cut to the present and the two sit before a mediator in a beige New York office overseeing their separation. The summary of virtues was an exercise he suggested to aid the settlement process, but tempers have flared to the extent that the pair cannot even communicate their grievances to each other.

The seams quickly unravel. Civility gives way to acrimony. The nuances of the American legal system teach Charlie and Nicole that you must roll up your sleeves, get down in the trenches and hurl mud at your opponent. And all the while paying a pretty penny for the privilege too.

As the hostilities intensify, the film moves into the sort of clammy claustrophobia that made Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight so powerful. The obvious go-to comparison is Robert Benton’s 1979 tearjerker Kramer vs. Kramer – a film with which this has much in common, possibly too much. In fact, it could be said that Marriage Story borders on the derivative. Even if guilty of that charge, however, this is an exceptional piece of dramatic storytelling.

Marriage Story review
Living apart: Noah Baumbach’s Netflix drama is an incisive and compassionate look at a marriage breaking up. Credit: Netflix

Arguably Baumbach’s greatest achievement in this film lies in the writing and how he manages to portray both sides’ opinion – and apportion blame equally. His characters are fully fleshed-out, replete with failings and foibles. There are no villains. There are no heroes. This only heightens the heartbreak.

Driver and Johansson reel you in and hold you tight until the closing credits roll. In the meantime, you flip and you flop, cheering on one side and then the other. The outcome is an utterly absorbing, highly emotional and exhausting journey. Magnificent.