Marriage Story begins like many other romances: with two people infatuated with one another. The film opens with Charlie (Adam Driver) reciting a list of all the quirks, eccentricities and attributes that make up why he loves his wife, Nicole (Scarlett Johansson). “She’s a great dancer – infectious,” Charlie says. “She gives great presents, she’s competitive. She’s a mother who plays – really plays.” Nicole also admires her husband: his drive, his “brilliant” intellect and the fact that “he loves being a dad.”
What ensues, however, is not a heartfelt tale of a successful relationship, but a heart-wrenching account of the painful process of divorce. After a decade of marriage, Nicole – a talented actress and the star player of Charlie’s off-Broadway theatre productions – seeks to take back her life after living in her husband’s shadow. The split, while painful, is amicable in the beginning – until the topic of custody for their child comes up.
The first issue is location. Nicole wants to live in her hometown of Los Angeles; Charlie in New York. The couple decide (Charlie begrudgingly) that their son Henry (Azhy Robertson) will stay with his mum in LA, and Charlie will simply have to commute to see him. Charlie’s life seems to go into meltdown in the process – the chaos that erupts in his life as soon as the word “divorce” is mentioned becomes reflected in his body language: he rushes from place to place, limbs flailing; stress seems to be ever-present on his brow and his eyes appear continually strained.
Meanwhile, Nicole tries to put down roots again in the city she grew up in. It’s the only home she ever “knew without Charlie,” she tells her lawyer in their first consultation prior to the divorce. It is during this discussion that she states her desire for the split to be as gentle as possible. She’s not concerned about money or coming between her son and his father – and she certainly doesn’t want there to be any aggression. She just wants a life for herself. This is wishful thinking, though, as problems begin to arise. Johansson and Driver excel as a couple that become locked into a war of attrition. Neither one of them has it in them to get truly nasty. Instead, they use their lawyers as mouthpieces to air their resentments.
In an extremely stressful court scene, Charlie and Nicole’s lawyers go head to head to settle the custody debate. Quickly, the case becomes less about the child in question and more about two lawyers seeking to win an argument. Before long, clever, no-bullshit Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern), whose power is portrayed as much by her Louboutins and loud-and-proud fashion sense as it is by her words, begins digging up the dirt on Charlie, calling him out for his extramarital affairs (“affair, singular” Charlie corrects her). Fellow hard-nosed litigator Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta) bites back, accusing Nicole of alcoholism, among other incidences of irresponsible behaviour. At the end of the film, when Nora tells Nicole that she secured a “45/55 percent” custody split in her favour, Nicole looks at her in disbelief, thinking aloud about how that isn’t what she wanted. This wasn’t about winning anymore.
Time wears on and the disputes are eventually settled. Nicole finds herself a new man and Charlie nurses his wounds, having realised a thing or two about life and love. Marriage Story’s success perhaps lies in its relatability. When asked why she wants to divorce her husband, Nicole states, “It’s difficult to articulate. It’s not as simple as not being in love anymore” – a line that will tug on the heartstrings of anyone who’s nursed a broken heart. Still, the overarching message conveyed by the close of Marriage Story is one of optimism: sometimes it is worth it to endure pain to make room for future happiness.