Review: Marriage Story is the most gut-punching film about love you'll watch all year

Marriage Story tells us the raw reality of modern love — and what it's like when it ends


"Never marry someone you wouldn't want to divorce."

That old cliché was all that ran through my head while crying my way through Marriage Story — maybe the most romantic film about divorce ever made. Because yes, although it's good advice, even if you marry a good person, divorce will still make them into a bad one.

It's easy to imagine the film by Oscar-nominated director Noah Baumbach as a play — minimal cast, maximum dialogue and maximum intimacy. Marriage Story stars Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as our central couple, Nicole and Charlie, as they try to navigate a divorce and custody of their son, Henry, in the messy modern setting of jet-setting between New York and L.A.

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Some backstory — Nicole is an actress, who, after spending her life feeling in Charlie's shadow as part of his theatre company in New York, decides to start fresh with her own career in L.A, where she's originally from. Charlie, a director, has built his company from the ground up and is fiercely dedicated to its staff and his work, loves Nicole and feels blindsided by her decision. Nicole wants to keep their son Henry in L.A. Charlie wants him in New York. We have our movie.

No bad guys

All the usual ingredients of a story about divorce are there — lawyers, meddling family members, extremely vicious exchanges, tense silences — but what's unusual is the way in which they're presented to us. I went into Marriage Story expecting to find out more about the characters and ultimately choose my own side in their separation, but Baumbach encourages us to buck that trend. Both Nicole and Charlie have equal airtime and thus inspire equal amounts of sympathy in the audience. There is no bad guy – just bad things that are done by two, ultimately good, people. And isn't that what divorce really is?

Because any kind of separation is rarely like the movies. It's not a clean-cut break where two people forget the other ever existed and move on scar-free. There are complications everywhere — from tactless families (who, played wonderfully by Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever as Nicole's mother and sister provide some of the best comic relief of the movie) to exhausted (and exhausting) kids, and, of course, the small matter of love. The love that remains there, even though it may not be enough to continue a marriage.

Pain and love

This is what Johansson and Driver achieve so effortlessly in Marriage Story — throughout the terrible journey of their divorce, there is no doubt in anyone's mind how much they care for each other.

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In the standout moments of the film, which include a monologue from Nicole about how a life lived for someone else can grind you down; an argument between the couple where they reveal all of the most terrible things they could never say to each other before; and a surprise musical number by Charlie that made me cry more than any other scene; the emerging emotion is love — the pain of losing it, the pain of still having it and the pain of it being so unattainable.

This isn't your usual Netflix romance binge — the tears aren't the kind that you wipe away and forget about after the credits roll. Think more Kramer vs Kramer heartbreak rather than The Notebook. But what Marriage Story does do is force us to face down the realities of modern break-ups, in all their raw, funny, loving, heart-wrenching glory. Don't be surprised when Oscar nominations come knocking.

Marriage Story is on Netflix now


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