One of the great mysteries of the 2019 awards season has been, “What does Jennifer Jason Leigh think of ‘Marriage Story'”? The actress had a high-profile public split with the film’s writer-director Noah Baumbach dating back to 2010, and his new movie partially draws on separation to tell the story of a couple Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson falling apart. Baumbach and Leigh’s divorce was finalized in 2013.
According to Baumbach, Leigh is a fan of the movie, which agonizingly details how warring professional ambitions can destroy a partnership. Driver is a theater director who wants to stay in New York, and Johansson plays an aspiring screen actress fleeing for Los Angeles. There’s also the challenge of raising a small child and how it has killed any feelings of romantic love between the two.
“I showed her the movie a little bit ago,” Baumbach told WSJ magazine, also adding that Leigh read the script. “She likes it a lot…I think the first time I showed it to her, she watched it in the cutting room and sent a photo of herself crying after the opening montage.” That opening montage cuts back and forth between Charlie Driver and Nicole Johansson as they explain what they love about each other — but it turns out to be a post-breakup exercise mandated by their couples’ counselor.
Baumbach is now partnered with Greta Gerwig, with whom he worked for the first time during the making of “Greenberg,” which was released in 2010. That’s also the year the Oscar-nominated “The Squid and the Whale” filmmaker broke up with Leigh. A 2013 New Yorker profile of Baumbach and Gerwig reiterated that these events were not related. Gerwig, like Baumbach, is an Oscar contender this year as the director of “Little Women.”
Leigh and Baumbach also worked together on “Greenberg,” but he gave her one of her best vehicles ever with “Margot at the Wedding,” in which she plays the embittered, soon-to-be-married sister of Nicole Kidman’s angry, neurotic writer. Like “Squid and the Whale” before it and now “Marriage Story,” Baumbach’s “Margot” paints an unsavory and at times devastating picture of marriage and relationships in general.
“Ordinary Love” isn't really a movie about cancer, even though this tender and discreet portrait of a marriage on fire begins with a woman Lesley Manville asking her longtime husband Liam Neeson to feel the lump she finds under her left breast. It isn't even a movie about dying, even though Lisa Barros D'Sa and Glenn Leyburn's direction casts a moribund pall over the drama from the moment it starts. On the contrary — and true to the title of Owen McCafferty's semi-autobiographical script — “Ordinary Love” is a story about all of the ways that even the strongest of couples can be separated before death does them part; a story about how different kinds of pain can trace the limits and boundlessness of sharing your life with someone.
Tom and Joan have been together for so long that the world outside of their marriage only seems to exist in soft focus. The two retirees live a quiet upper-middle-class existence in a seaside Irish town, and spend their afternoons power-walking along the water in order to satisfy the demands of their FitBits she always wears earbuds, but they still manage to make each other laugh along the way. They bicker a lot, but only to remind each other they're still alive. “I know what you're going to say” is the most honest part of every argument, and also the reason for having them. When someone asks after Joan's husband, she can only reply that “He's Tom all the time.”
The tumor is the first new test this couple has faced in a long time, even if it points towards a previous tragedy that may be holding their marriage together by centrifugal force. They react to the various test results and screenings in different but consistently inconsistent ways; Joan braces for the worst, while Tom is petrified of letting his wife know that he's scared. Strange pockets of distance begin to grow between them, as the film's Haneke-still compositions start to separate these characters in time and space sometimes it divides them across different floors, sometimes by different shots, and sometimes by nothing more than the crack between two panes of glass in a restaurant window. Joan's hair falls out in clumps as she sweats through a chemo-induced fever, while Tom drowns his sorrows with a beer in front of the television. To what extent is this happening to both of them? How feasible is it for two people to share in this kind of hardship?
The probing nature of these eternal questions — when asked with the seriousness they demand — is enough to make “Ordinary Love” feel like something of an ultra-sedate counterpoint to “Phantom Thread,” in which Manville was the bystander to a marriage sustained by the transference of pain from one partner to the other. Reynolds Woodcock would make Alma suffer,...