It was the beginning of “Marriage Story” that did it for me.
The Oscar-nominated film opens up with a soon-to-be-divorced couple recounting what they each love about their estranged spouse (at this point the viewer has no idea that they are, indeed, estranged). Charlie Barber, played by Adam Driver, has the first line.
“What I love about Nicole…”
As Charlie recounts Nicole’s (played by Scarlett Johansson) endearing personality traits and quirks, the audience members are taken on a panoramic trip of their past life.
“She really listens when someone is talking.”
The camera cuts to Nicole listening to an animal rights activist outside the subway with a sign-up sheet, nodding her head with sincerity.
“She cuts all our hair.”
We’re shown Charlie sitting on the edge of the bathtub as Nicole plays barber. The scene repeats with their 8‑year-old son as Charlie watches.
“And it’s not easy for her to put away a sock, or close a cabinet, or do a dish, but she tries for me.” Camera cuts to Charlie hitting his head on a kitchen cabinet door left ajar.
As Charlie continues to list what he loves about Nicole—her gift giving, her parenting, her sense of humor, her ingenuity — the audience falls more and more in love with their relationship. I know I did.
“What I love about Charlie…Charlie is undaunted.”
Now we get Nicole’s perspective, which is just as heart-wrenching as Charlie’s.
In a way this sequence at the beginning of the film is the most powerful and telling of the entire movie. The audience sees the genuine love and connection Charlie and Nicole have for each other, which makes their separation so agonizing.
Marriage Story is successful because it starts with the realization that what Charlie and Nicole had was real. And even as they fall out of love, they are continually reminded — as well as the audience members — that their bond remains (as flashbacks to the film’s opening scene attest). Thus this opening scene is necessary because it is pivotal to the structure and understanding of the movie as a whole.
Ultimately, “Marriage Story” is successful because it tells a story well — the story of Charlie and Nicole and their failed marriage. Instead of seeing each character as a villain, we see their strengths and their flaws with the necessary backdrop of their shared history and attachment. We see the genuine depth of their very human relationship, and we relate it to ourselves.