DISCLAIMER: Mild spoilers abound for HBO’s Scenes from a Marriage.
We live in an age of remakes, reboots, reimaginings and reinterpretations. Enter Scenes from a Marriage, which pulls significant inspiration from Ingmar Bergman‘s 1974 drama of the same name. Hagai Levi‘s contemporary remake reexamines Bergman’s take on monogamy, love, hatred and divorce. Of course, much about modern life has changed since 1974, but we humans are stubbornly immovable when handling complex feelings.
Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain steer this ship as Jonathan and Mira, a long-married couple that, at face value, appears to have it all together. They’re interviewed by a Ph.D. student (played by Sunita Mani) regarding the ins and outs of their successful marriage. Even then, one can see the threads of their union are starting to fray.
What follows is an oftentimes heavy-handed play-by-play of Jonathan and Mira’s crumbling relationship. It’s stripped-down, raw, visceral and uncomfortable. Scenes from a Marriage is incredibly dialogue-heavy and character-driven. It unfurls like a play, despite the intimate framing and close-ups. I half expected to find a stage manager waiting in the wings off-camera and a lighting booth.
Isaac and Chastain’s extensive theatrical background is put to good use. In fact, I’d say this is a brilliant study for acting students. Both actors bring an immense weight to their roles. It’s like watching a boxing match — you’re waiting to see who’ll gain the upper hand with their next vicious blow.
One thing’s for certain: Chastain and Isaac’s sizzling chemistry is undeniable. You definitely buy them as a couple. However, Isaac steals the show for me. His nuanced portrayal of Jonathan is as mesmerizing as it is heartbreaking. Never has an actor seamlessly mastered the “simmering” look. So much of what he does is brewing underneath the surface in an amalgam of convoluted emotions.
Chastain’s emotional upheavals are impressive yet exhausting. Undoubtedly, she’s one of the most gifted performers of our time. But Mira’s 180-degree character shifts are enough to give you internal whiplash. Some of her intense moments are almost too over the top — as if she’s on stage performing for the balcony. It’s overwhelming for an intimately-shot TV show.
This begs the question: Do we need five hour-long episodes to watch these characters torture each other?
One could argue this is a verbatim adaptation of Bergman’s work. The character names are similar; the plot details are similar. Even the episode titles are identical (well, an English translation of Swedish titles). The difference? Levi begins each episode with a stark reminder of COVID-19. We see Isaac and Chastain heading to set while donning masks and preparing for scenes right until Levi yells, “Action!”
This move is possibly the most head-scratching of them all. Is it meant to showcase the grim reality in which we’re currently living? The struggles Scenes from a Marriage faced while we’re in the throes of a pandemic? Or is it to illustrate the disconnect between the actors and their fictional roles? As if to say, “Yes, we know this looks real, but Chastain and Isaac aren’t their characters.”
Who knows? It might be the defining contrast between Levi’s version and Bergman’s original.
Honestly, the sequence of events in Scenes from a Marriage could be condensed into three installments instead of five. It’s emotionally draining for us as viewers to watch vehemently explosive monologues multiple times in every episode. Instead of strictly adhering to someone else’s story, it would probably help to have more action to give us time to breathe.
Scenes from a Marriage nails the depiction of what Jonathan calls “the in-between.” That drawn-out, in limbo, agonizing state of separating. Oblivion. You feel Jonathan and Mira’s pain. How can you not? Isaac and Chastain utterly disappear, leaving no trace of the celebrities we pretend to know.
Mira and Jonathan’s respective character arcs are intriguing on their own. There’s some evolving, some devolving. They’re the driving factor of this story, after all.
Scenes from a Marriage toes the line of subtle brilliance and blatant overinflation. Of brewing-beneath-the-surface vulnerability and overblown melodrama. Is it original? Is it derivative? Since it borrows so much from Bergman’s property, I’d say more of the latter than the former.
Overall, the performances are strong, the editing is slightly jarring and the dialogue occasionally teeters toward cheesiness. It successfully fulfills its objective of examining modern marriage.
That being said, Levi’s work leaves me feeling conflicted. It’s emotionally draining, which makes me wonder whether it’s necessary. It’s clearly a vehicle for the talented Chastain and Isaac to show their versatility as performers. One might call it awards bait.
Sometimes, it’s difficult for me to invest in something if it’s obviously meant to garner accolades. It feels simultaneously full and hollow.
But I imagine that’s the point — feeling conflicted. Scenes from a Marriage is a whole mess of gray, and if that’s what we all feel after watching it, then perhaps it did its job.
Final Grade: B
This review was originally posted on 9/10/21.
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