Massachusetts. Academic Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) and tech exec Mira (Jessica Chastain) have been married for ten years (together for 12) with a daughter, Ava. Very slowly their relationship begins to crack, then crumble.
Streaming on: Sky Atlantic / NOW
Episodes viewed: 5 of 5
It’s unlikely that Hagar Levi’s adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 TV miniseries-turned-movie Scenes From A Marriage will spawn an avalanche of TV shows rebooting the Swedish master’s work (Paul Rudd defeats Death at checkers in The Eighth Seal!). Bergman offered a two-hander (Liv Ullmann, Erland Josephson) that delivered a forensic examination of a failing marriage. Levi, who has strained-relationship previous with The Affair and In Treatment, takes this conceit, adds Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, and replays it with more iPads and better soft furnishings. The result is interesting and beautifully played but comes nowhere near the emotional wallop of the original.
Most episodes begin with a bold if ultimately baffling gambit. In grainy footage, a snaking camera follows either Isaac or Chastain onto set (cue facemasks and Covid protocols), the actors waiting behind a clapperboard before we seamlessly slide into the fiction. The action begins proper with the couple they play, Jonathan (Isaac) and Mira (Chastain), being interviewed by a student (Sunita Mani) for her paper on how shifting gender norms impact monogamous marriages. It’s a nifty way to deliver an exposition dump; Jonathan is a Jewish academic, asthmatic, the primary parent; Mira is a VP in tech products (“Is that enough?”) But, as is the case throughout the show, what isn’t said is often as important as what is. When their inquisitor asks how they got together, Jonathan pitches the meet cute as charming, which makes Mira clearly uncomfortable. The seeds of discontent are sown from the get-go.
Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac are terrific both in big moments and with smaller gestures.
Broadly following the shape of Bergman’s series — episode two is jettisoned completely — Levi and Amy Herzog’s script puts Jonathan and Mira through the wringer, albeit slowly. There are hospital visits, revelations of affairs (gender-swapped from Bergo), work relocations and a whole episode dedicated to signing divorce papers, but this isn’t the flash and thunder of, say, Marriage Story. Instead, we’re given a series of petty arguments and micro-aggressions, sparked by renovating an attic or the correct way to pack a suitcase.
It will come as no surprise that the most impressive thing about Scenes From A Marriage is its lead duo. Previously playing spouses in A Most Violent Year, Chastain and Isaac are terrific both in big moments and with smaller gestures, the former asserting herself to mask insecurities, the latter a gentle soul coming into his own. Yet, for all their obvious skill, Scenes From A Marriage doesn’t work as well as it should. This is partly because 48 years on from Bergman, we’ve seen this conceit many times before but also because, despite all the granular interrogation of every emotion, it never makes you feel. The impeccable craft and detached quality in the writing make it an exercise in head not heart, never raw enough, never touching enough. It becomes an acting masterclass over five hours — albeit a tough one to stick out.
Lacking the humanity of Bergman’s version, the dispassionate tone of Scenes From A Marriage doesn’t move you but it’s worth staying with for spectacular performances from Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac.