A word of warning: Don't watch this with your partner.

You may have the most solid relationship. You may even have what you think is an honest relationship. But you can never fully know what another person is thinking or feeling, even the person you know and who knows you the best.

Marriage Story is not a date movie.

It's like the time I watched Blue Valentine – the Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams break-up film by Derek Cianfrance – at the cinemas with, luckily, a friend. When the lights came on at the end, we looked around and we were surrounded by couples.


Every one of those faces looked traumatised. And not one of them were looking at the person next to them Instead, they stared straight ahead, probably thinking about the awkward car ride home to come.

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It's not as though movies like Blue Valentine or Marriage Story are going to cause some wave of divorces or breakups around the world as those Netflix views go up.

But Marriage Story is so raw and emotionally burning that the experience is best savoured alone.

Scarlett Johansson as Nicole. Photo / AP
Scarlett Johansson as Nicole. Photo / AP
Adam Driver as Charlie. Photo / Supplied
Adam Driver as Charlie. Photo / Supplied

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, Marriage Story stars Adam Driver in a career-best performance, and that's saying something because Driver has given some highly accomplished performances including in Jim Jarmusch's Paterson and Scott Z. Burns' The Report.

Co-starring Scarlett Johansson, the pair play Charlie and Nicole, a creative couple in their 30s going through what they think is going to be an amicable divorce.

Charlie is a feted avant-garde New York theatre director and Nicole is a LA-born actor who found early fame as a teen star but has mostly been working with Charlie's repertory theatre company in New York.

Marriage Story won the top prize at the Gotham Awards this week. Photo / AP
Marriage Story won the top prize at the Gotham Awards this week. Photo / AP

When the movie starts, Charlie and Nicole have already decided to separate, but Baumbach has cleverly made us invested in their love story with two opening montages, full of flashbacks that accompany voiceovers from each character revealing what they love about the other.


It's a masterstroke and highly effective in throwing our empathy behind each character and their emotional wellbeing. You're trapped – when they hurt, you hurt.

What starts off as a "straightforward" divorce, whatever that is, soon becomes something else as deep, unspoken resentments are drudged up. At the heart of the conflict is Nicole and Charlie's young son, Henry, and Nicole's desire to permanently base herself and Henry in California.

The hostilities dial up and divorce lawyers (played by Laura Dern, Alan Alda and Ray Liotta) become involved, building up to a bruising, mesmerising confrontation between Nicole and Charlie. The kind of argument that punches right where it hurts.

Marriage Story could be read as semi-autobiographical for Baumbach, himself having gone through a divorce with Jennifer Jason Leigh some years back. If it is, then Baumbach, a talented filmmaker with a particular gift for writing, clearly makes his strongest films when he's drawing on something personal.

While not his first, Baumbach's breakthrough movie was the 2005 film The Squid and the Whale, a chronicle of divorce between two Brooklyn intellectuals, seen through the eyes of their teenage son. That Oscar-nominated script was based on Baumbach's parents' divorce in the 1980s.

Like The Squid and the Whale, Marriage Story rings with authenticity, not in that trite mumblecore way, but in that way in which it feels emotionally true, even if the dialogue and rhythm is far too slick for real life.

And in the 14 years since The Squid and the Whale, Baumbach has evolved as a filmmaker, and even with its subject matter, Marriage Story is not bitter and grim. It even has moments of humour, and ends on a note of hope – plus that score by Randy Newman adds another layer of emotionality.

Marriage Story is a very human story. Photo / AP
Marriage Story is a very human story. Photo / AP

Driver is note perfect as Charlie, desperate for custody of his son, desperate to stay in New York, but also highly flawed in his selfishness. He plays every scene at just the right tempo.

Johansson manages to match Driver in a role that could easily have been the unsympathetic party in the increasingly nasty battle if it had been conceived by a filmmaker with less nuance and compassion.

Marriage Story is an actors' showcase and Baumbach elicits absolute powerhouse performances from his stars.

What the incisive Marriage Story gets so right is how much complexity is imbued in each of the characters – no one is the good guy and no one is the bad guy. It states, unequivocally, how complicated any relationship is – actually, it doesn't just state it, it shows you. And that's rare.

Which brings me back to why you shouldn't watch Marriage Story with your partner. It's not just because it could lead to some awkward glances and the memory of that last argument you "lost" that you know you should've won.

It's more that Marriage Story is such a pure storytelling experience that watching it with someone else could compromise your own emotional response to this masterpiece.

Yes, that sounds wanky. But you'll understand (and no one will see you cry).

Rating: 5/5

- News.com.au