Martin Carr reviews HBO’s Scenes from a Marriage…
This intimate examination of long term relationships is stylistically absorbing, intrusively unsettling and genuinely engrossing. Adapted from the Ingmar Bergman original by Hagai Levi, who came to prominence on HBO through The Affair, it features some powerhouse performances from Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain.
Playing Jonathan and Mira respectively, it is an up close and personal mini-series with theatrical overtones. For the full five hours this is essentially a two hander, with reams of dialogue and no emotional time outs. From the opening frame the director intentionally draws attention to the artifice, giving this an off kilter sense of reality. Both actors are name checked in different exchanges on their way through the soundstages, while a camera tracks quietly behind. Stylistically this implies the inadequacies of art in depicting our internal struggles for mass consumption.
Scenes from a Marriage will ring true to anyone who has ever been in love, been left or felt tempted by another. Jonathan and Mira are seemingly happy, evidently solvent yet find themselves at a crossroads. Attraction has turned into routine, parenthood has taken the focus away from one another, and careers have flourished. In this update Mira has become the bread winner, while Jonathan is an academic and primary parent to their daughter Ava.
Corey Stoll and Nicole Beharie are their best friends who engage in an open relationship, which brings a contemporary discussion point into play. As Peter and Kate, they stand apart as people willing to explore other options to keep their partnership fresh. Debates both visual and verbal around sexual desire are prevalent, while rational discussions devolve slowly into something more uninhibited come the conclusion.
Ingmar Bergman set out to explore the complexes of people, where moral boundaries might be, and what ultimately makes a marriage. His original feels like an academic exercise in comparison to this polished piece of theatre. Hagai Levi and playwright Amy Herzog have given this piece teeth and made it resonant. Dialogue goes from scathing to delicate while emotional beats feel earned and invested. Passion between these two actors, either borne of resentment or confusion is intentionally uncomfortable at times. From the late night revelation of an affair, which escalates from civility into confrontation before breaking both actors in two, this series consistently pulls no punches.
As executive producers on this project, both Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac bring everything to the table. Each feels visibly vulnerable, unwaveringly invested and laser focused throughout. Scenes from a Marriage works best when it gets under the skin, burrows into those dark places and makes audiences feel awkward. Delicate moments of doubt, inappropriate text alerts and the emotional freefall of infidelity combine with blind passion to all play their part.
Reason is replaced by something more carnal and the dilemma of unexpected attractions throw everything into question. That is what this adaptation captures best as Jonathan and Mira’s relationship unravels. Tactless bruising from the aftermath of a lover’s tryst, combine with silent stress triggers as these performances are reduced to their essence. As conflicting emotions jockey for position asthma attacks, physical confrontations and gut wrenching outbursts frame a genuinely powerful piece of work.
Whether this gets written off as too arthouse, too award friendly or too intellectually dense for mainstream audiences, there is no denying the importance of the piece. Whether audiences appreciate it for the sexual politics, gender debates or wider discussions around relationships Scenes from a Marriage deserves recognition. In a time when technological advances have changed the definition of human connections, it is a refreshing sucker punch for anyone who can remember when conversations were something that happened in person.
Scenes from a Marriage streams on HBO Max from September 12th.