Tom Augustine wraps up the weekend in film
With last year's Roma, Netflix made its most significant bid for Oscar glory, the film garnering several nominations and notching a Best Director win. This year, Netflix doubles down on Oscar-chasing titles, with the brilliant The Irishman serving as the frontrunner in the race for gold. Netflix has a few other major titles in the running, including the caustic, deeply felt Marriage Story (M), Noah Baumbach's document of the end of a marriage and drawn from his own divorce.
Baumbach is perhaps the finest "New York" film-maker of his generation - one whose work reflects the singular mood and style of the place - with his masterpiece Frances Ha providing a witty, adrift heroine for a similarly witty, adrift generation of millennials. In Marriage Story, Baumbach decamps for a significant portion to Los Angeles, where Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) has moved following a break-up with husband Charlie (Adam Driver), who remains in New York. Hoping to "remain friends", the two find themselves drawn into the carnivorous world of commercial divorce attorneys when a custody battle over the pair's child emerges. Nicole refuses to return to New York; Charlie won't come to LA. The change in location is significant. As Charlie finds himself resisting the change LA represents, we see the film's aesthetic and style do the same, with battlelines drawn between the two locations as starkly as those between the former couple.
What follows is an increasingly tense, heartfelt account of the destructive path a divorce weaves through a relationship as old wounds are re-examined and long-harboured grudges brought to the fore. What makes the film sing is its script, with moments of savage humour among the court proceedings and testimonies. The film is a great showcase for Driver, one of his generation's most exciting young performers, who sinks his teeth into Baumbach's sparkling dialogue in the thrilling, horrifying spats between himself and Johansson's Nicole. Johansson is also strong, although her performance is more subject to effect and distance than Driver's, perhaps because of the closeness the director has to Driver's character.
The film operates first and foremost as an actor's vehicle, with lengthy monologues and nail-biting showdowns galore but it's also perhaps Baumbach's most assured directorial effort, one that demonstrates an almost old-fashioned maturity and patience that eschews most of his usual quirks. Marriage Story is not an easy watch; it is frequently squirm-inducing with Baumbach, for the most part, refusing to take sides (or, at the very least, providing justification for either side's actions) - but that's what makes it one of the most satisfying dramas of the year. For a brief period, Aucklanders can see it on the big-screen before its move to Netflix - a perfect setting to really sink into the lives of this crumbling, struggling couple.
Rating: Four and a half stars.