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Somewhere, on a quiet Boston street, stands a tastefully decorated family home that emanates love and warmth: its mornings of playtime are revealed in a little girl’s overflowing toybox, its evenings of merry chatter in lipstick-rimmed wine glasses. But all is not well in this inviting abode. Scenes from a Marriage, HBO’s bruising, five-episode conjugal drama, is set between the four walls of a home in the process of becoming a house, as the divorcing couple Mira (Jessica Chastain) and Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) deconstruct everything they’ve built together. The limited series follows the extrication – object by object, memory by memory – of a shared life with a painful, resounding realism and an almost unbearable intensity.
The narrative is simple, more driven by dialogue than action. After nearly a decade of marriage, Mira tires of her sedate domestic existence and separates from her husband to pursue a passionate relationship with a younger colleague. A gender-swapped adaptation of Ingmar Bergman’s eponymous work (which is rumoured to have caused Swedish divorce rates to double after it aired in 1973), Scenes from a Marriage is structured as a compilation of vignettes, where each episode jumps forward by months, or even years, and time can be plotted by Mira’s new fringe, Jonathan’s greying beard. Mercifully, the show’s five-hour run is well-modulated, and ensures that high-decibel screaming matches are undercut by whispered confessions and stammered regrets. This is a series that understands the power of silence and holds us in its stillness, so close we can see a single tear running down a cheek, hear breath catching in a throat.
Two-handers like these are only as strong as their co-leads, and each actor delivers a towering performance in Scenes from a Marriage. (Their romantic chemistry is so potent that Chastain took to social media to assure audiences that she and her onscreen husband are “just friends”.) As the mild-mannered academic Jonathan, Isaac is mostly withdrawn, smooth as granite, with the occasional outburst that seems to issue deep from his soul. Chastain, embodying the impulsive businesswoman Mira, is initially brittle but soon cracks open into a splintering heap of resentment, anxiety and grief.
Together, they create an emotionally fraught environment where a yawn is interpreted as an act of aggression, fingertips brushing a thigh leads to sex on a clingfilmed sofa whose ownership was disputed moments before. It is a credit to the performers that your sympathies swing between their characters, both of whom can be needlessly cruel. Your heart breaks for Jonathan when he carefully folds his wife’s clothes in the bag she’s packed to leave him, and you are crushed to witness Mira desperately blocking the door with her body, beseeching him to stay after a devastating argument. Throughout their gradual disentanglement, the couple remain cartographers for one another, so intimately familiar with their ex’s particular topography that they know just how to inflict hurt (but also how to assuage it).
The series’ director Hagai Levi maps out his protagonists’ estrangement with his camera. In the first episode, he frames Mira and Jonathan together in bed, then separately while they have a prickly conversation about their future, and finally unites them once they reach a tentative resolution. Levi switches up this shot composition in the second instalment after Mira admits she has been unfaithful. Jonathan is again in bed, whereas she is now perched away from him on the windowsill, the wide space between them visualising how they are being drawn apart.
Save for a handful of sequences, Scenes from a Marriage takes place entirely within the confines of their house, which, over the course of the show, becomes less and less hospitable, with artworks taken down and bubble-wrapped, keepsakes encased in cardboard boxes. The emptiness Mira has left in her wake is rendered literal when Jonathan and their daughter Ava resort to horizontal living in her absence, hauling their beds down to the study and refusing to venture upstairs as if it were a crime scene.
There are, however, some stylistic choices that rankle in the show. Each episode inexplicably begins with a few minutes of fourth-wall breaking, revealing the actors preparing to shoot, surrounded by a masked-up crew carrying props and clapperboards, and saying things like “Jessica’s pulling into set” on walkie-talkies. Such foregrounded artifice feels wildly out of place in a drama that is otherwise grounded in naturalism. I’m also unsure if the series needed quite this many episodes, since cycling through the same pattern of argument, fragile reconciliation, another argument gets cloying by the end.
For the most part, though, watching Scenes from a Marriage is the TV equivalent of being invited into the flat of the people you furtively watch from across the street: it provides warts-and-all insight into the breakdown of a relationship. The subject matter may reopen healing wounds for some (separations and divorces did skyrocket worldwide during the early days of the pandemic, after all), but, if you can face it, this limited series candidly traces the peaks and troughs of married life with the gentleness of a conciliatory arm threaded around a torso.
‘Scenes from a Marriage’ airs on Sky Atlantic and Now, with all episodes available from 11 October.
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