Things Fall Apart: I watched Marriage Story so you don't have to

When Liadan Hynes' marriage fell apart she had to work on adjusting to the new reality. In her weekly column, Things Fall Apart she explores the myriad ways a person can find their way back to themselves


"Are you sure this is a good idea?" the Work Wife asks me. She’s so concerned, she and her husband have discussed it. Should I really be doing this?

The 'this' she’s talking about is our latest choice for movie night.

I’ve been talking about it all week, excitedly. Which even I can see is somewhat bizarre. Because the movie we’re watching is Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, a new film about a couple (Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver) going through a divorce.

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And I’m going through a divorce. Why would I want to watch a fictionalised version of one, never mind get excited at the prospect?

Curiosity

Their concern makes sense. And yet I am dying to see it. I think it’s partly just because I know it’s there and I can’t look away. Like watching a Freddie Krueger movie at a slumber party when I was a young teenager; knowing I would spend weeks afterwards terrified (I was in fact still ringing my parents, aged 17, if they were out and an ad for the movie came on in their absence), but still unable to stop myself looking out from under the duvet when I heard his voice.

But it’s also a sort of academic curiosity. I write about this kind of thing, and so I’m professionally very curious to see whether Baumbach has pulled it off. How he has dramatised the death throes of a marriage. Pulled it together into something resembling a narrative, when in real life much of it is more a slow, grinding descent into an awful realisation that things are over and then a pulling apart that happens less in one big wrench, more by a thousand tiny paper cuts (or so it feels at times).

Visceral, but relatively invisible from the point of view of creating a narrative structure.

Can you make that into a worth-watching movie?

Yes and no it turns out.

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Marriage Story

Marriage Story, which begins after the decision to end the marriage has been taken, captures lots of little moments that anyone who has been through it will recognise.

That bit when you’ve given up, and things are easier between you than they have been for a long time, but then joltingly, you both begin realising that that doesn’t mean a sort of coasting on pretending like this isn't happening. In the middle of a chat that could be between a couple happily married, Johansson serves Driver with the divorce papers.

The bits before there are two separate homes properly set up. If you’re a father in the early stages of divorce, probably best not to watch this.

The bit when Alan Alda, a lawyer, compares divorce to a death without a body (possibly one of the best descriptions of divorce ever).

The almost stomach-turning heartbreak of the simple fact that you are in this situation with the person who once made you happiest.

Once the Work Wife and I settled down on my couch to watch it, I’ll admit I was a bit nervous. You do eventually seem to get off the rollercoaster of grief but that doesn’t mean you believe you are off it. I think a part of you always expects it to come crashing in again. And Christmas, with all those extra nights out, extra drinking, eating of rubbish, means most of us are like over-emotional children at this point who, confronted with something they’ve long looked forward to, find it all too much and dissolve in tears.

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Was this a bad idea? Was I risking my peace of mind for Christmas?

Not really, it turns out.

For one thing, nobody in Marriage Story is really that likeable, so there is only so much you can care about their plight.

For a good chunk of the movie, they seem to be labouring under the illusion that they are in a Woody Allen movie, and so do that annoying thing that actors nowadays do in an actual Woody Allen movie: subpar imitations of Allen's very mannered way of acting.

For another, watching a couple pull apart isn’t really entertaining. It’s basically people having miserable conversations and going to lawyers. There is another part of divorce. The fact that your relationship with your children can deepen, as you sink into a different kind of intimacy that comes from spending lots of one-to-one time with your child (not better than non-divorced parents, just different). It’s where the most charming bits of Kramer V Kramer sprung from. That final breakfast scene, which points to what a team single parents and their children, both parents, fathers and mothers in their individual relationships with their child, can become.

Marriage Story chooses to ignore this. Weirdly, the father’s relationship with his son, which in early scenes seems almost symbiotic, jumps off a sort of cliff into mutual cranking at each other.

This hasn’t stopped my gallop. I have already peppered the Work Wife with further divorce-related movie suggestions and, so far, she’s entertaining me. We’re doing Heartburn next, the Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson adaptation of Norah Ephron’s book based on her own divorce. She tells me it is far superior to Kramer V Kramer. Meryl doesn’t get such a rough ride.

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I will report back.

Photo: Marriage Story

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