Scenes from a Marriage: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain deliver an acting masterclass

Express News Service

Scenes from a Marriage (SFAM), streaming on Disney+ Hotstar, swirls around a marriage coming apart at the seams. It’s a suspense and relationship drama rolled into one. By suspense, I mean it makes you wonder whether the central couple Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) and Mira (Jessica Chastain) would get a divorce or not. It takes four episodes out of the five-episode miniseries to find the answer.

In the fifth, you are going to ask something else. I’m not going to spoil it, but the finale probably won’t sit well with the staunchly conservative crowd. Until then, just sit back and savour the impeccable craft of two consummate actors at the top of their game. It’s a five-hour acting masterclass. SFAM has Jessica and Oscar evoking the best work of Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro or Meryl Streep. Yes, it can get quite depressing at times —stories about failed marriages tend to do that—but these two depict a conflicted couple so convincingly that I was glad to be a fly on the wall, no matter how intense it gets. By the time I was done with it, I wanted to study the brains of Jessica and Oscar to understand the various permutations and combinations that make them tick.

Perhaps it is to illustrate that some marriages are all about ‘getting into character’ that Hagai Levi, who wrote, co-produced and directed the show, chose to employ a variation of fourth-wall-breaking wherein actors begin the show as themselves, behind the scenes, and then becoming their characters all while the camera tracks them as they walk from their caravan to the set. It doesn’t take long for one to get familiar with this approach. The minute Oscar and Jessica become Jonathan and Mira, we instantly forget that they were Oscar and Jessica just a few minutes back. 

The drama in each episode is triggered by one (or more) revelations that don’t necessarily show up at the end of it. Through the five episodes, which span a couple of years, I had all sorts of questions. What are the ingredients for a happy marriage? Is it passion? Is it kids or the absence of them? Is there a point where one gets bored of the other? Are human beings naturally not wired to be monogamous? Is complete transparency practical all the time? What information is one supposed to reveal and when? Are some things better kept hidden? To what extent can one remain morally superior? It’s a long list.

The show supplies enough thought-provoking questions and profound insights that the fact that 99% of it is confined to interiors rarely crossed my mind. One of the main characters is the house in which Jonathan, Mira and their little daughter reside. It’s a character with a lot of… character. You are introduced to each and every corner of it, and after a while, you almost feel like you’ve lived there too. The noisy involvement of some of the objects in the house makes the drama seem heavier than it already is. Vibrating phones or clinging cutlery interfere when serious conversations are in progress. At other times, the confusion is caused by one character’s inability to communicate everything that needs to be said. Need I say more about the amount of anxiety these things can cause? Normally, warm lighting is supposed to calm us, but in this case, it doesn’t.

SFAM is one of those shows that take its own sweet time to get where it’s going, and this quality is more pronounced in the fourth episode. But it has valid reasons for doing so—psychological reasons. It also has a remarkable degree of dark humour considering that indecisiveness is a recurring factor throughout the show. There are multiple instances where I asked myself, “What the hell is going on right now?” and it’s a relief when the characters echo the same sentiment. Being in a relationship is one thing for which you don’t get any training. You either know how to handle its ups and downs, or you don’t. 

Though supreme examples like Blue Valentine and Gone Girl have explored similar territory before, Scenes from a Marriage, which is a contemporary reboot of Ingmar Bergman’s series of the same name, shows that there is still plenty of material out there in this area waiting to come alive on screen. One only needs to look in the right places—and, of course, at the right actors. I would even go so far as to say that in terms of depth, it is a far superior experience compared to something like Marriage Story. It’s not a feel-good experience, but I already have the strong urge to revisit it because it reminds me that human beings are complex and flawed, and some improvised decisions don’t always produce the best results. 

Film: Scenes from a Marriage 
Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain
Creator: Hagai Levi
Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

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