Scenes from a Marriage

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Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in Scenes from a Marriage.
Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in Scenes from a Marriage.
Photo: Facebook/HBO Max


Scenes from a Marriage


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4/5 Stars


Scenes from a Marriage is a modern adaptation of Ingmar Bergman's classic Swedish series of the same name. The five-part limited series re-examines the dilemmas probed by the original and flips the script on traditional gender roles to explore love, hatred, desire, monogamy, marriage, and divorce through the lens of a contemporary American couple.


There is something about a divorce story that requires the leads to have a certain amount of undeniable chemistry. We saw it with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Revolutionary Road, it happened for Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine, but Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac almost changed the game entirely.

Scenes From A Marriage is a showcase of talent between two powerful actors. It feels similar to watching a play in that everything else almost fades away as you are confronted by these two characters, their motivations and their struggles. Director Hagai Levi does an interesting thing at the beginning of each episode. The camera follows Chastain or Isaac as they make their way onto the set and into character. It's amazing to watch as they seamlessly slip into the characters and show the artistry of their craft. In an interview, Levi said that he felt it was important to do this to show that this is a story about a specific couple, but the themes discussed can be true for anyone. I feel that this worked well for the first two episodes to see both Chastain and Isaac get into character, but after that, it becomes more of a gimmick, and you just want to get past that to see what is happening in the actual story.

The story itself centres around a couple – Mira (Jessica Chastain) and Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) who have been married for ten years. Mira is the vice-president of a tech company, and Jonathan is a philosophy academic. Because Jonathan's job is more remote, he is also the primary caregiver for their daughter, Ava. Through the five episodes of the series, we watch as their relationship grows and changes. Despite their struggles, they can't help but be drawn to each other.

The first episode begins with the couple being interviewed by a student for a thesis about monogamous marriage and gender norms. It is obvious that Mira is uncomfortable with the line of questioning, and Jonathan fails to notice. And for the audience, this indicates that if Jonathan cannot see such a small thing, what else isn't he noticing? This is the beginning of the cracks starting to show in their relationship. Later on, in the episode, they are having dinner with another couple (played by Corey Stoll and Nicole Beharie) who have opened up their marriage but are still facing difficulties. This brings to light even more cracks in Mira and Jonathan's relationship. However, we only learn about the actual catalyst that causes the break-up in the second episode.

The entire season takes place over approximately five years. There is a time jump between episodes, and we learn about how much time has passed through their conversations – what has transpired in their lives, the age of their daughter etc. This is where it becomes a testament to Chastain and Isaac's acting and chemistry because only a compelling connection would keep you glued to the screen even though the characters are clearly on a one-way trip to disasterville.

At the Venice Film Festival in September, a clip went viral of Chastain and Isaac on the red carpet where Isaac gave her an intense, adoring look before kissing her arm. It was such a sensual moment, and it was only a teaser of what you see in the actual show. You are enthralled by Mira and Jonathan; even if both of them are imperfect characters who definitely have issues that they need to sort through, you are still intrigued by them and their relationship. At times I felt so lost in the story that I felt like I was part of the relationship too, and it had me thinking and rethinking about the relationships in my own life. I felt like I was intruding at other times, like I was walking in on a private moment.

The series is a remake of the 1973 Swedish miniseries of the same name created by Ingmar Bergman. The original was so popular that it was blamed for the increase in the divorce rates in Sweden after it aired. Whether or not this was true, the counselling hotline that Bergman attached to the series saw an increase in calls after the series aired. The 2021 version of the series follows an intense lockdown after the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020 alone, divorce rates surged in South Africa after level 5 lockdown when couples were forced to be together 24/7 and often deal with their problems head-on. So while the original series has spurned many inspired remakes like the ones mentioned above and Marriage Story, the films of Woody Allen, and Kramer vs Kramer, there is something important about why now is a poignant time for it to be released.

An important change they made in the remake was to genderswap the characters. Whereas in Bergman's version, the husband is the breadwinner and the one who decides to end the marriage, while the wife is the primary caregiver of the children. Levi's version flips this, providing an interesting commentary about traditional gender roles and how it affects marriage. It is obvious that Mira feels a semblance of guilt for not being there for a daughter as often as her father is, and Jonathan feels a bit of resentment towards Mira's success.

All five episodes are mainly two-handers between Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac, and at times they might seem a bit long. There are long, extensive scenes where it feels like they are circling around the same topics over and over again, and it feels claustrophobic to watch.

However, Scenes From A Marriage is a compelling watch and worth it to see the iconic chemistry between Chastain and Isaac explode on screen while still offering intricate commentary about relationship dynamics in the 21st century.


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