Scenes from a Marriage review: Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac are at the top of their game

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 (HBO / Sky Atlantic)
(HBO / Sky Atlantic)

A project like Scenes from a Marriage, which re-works Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman’s influential 1973 television series about the breakdown of a long-term relationship, lives or dies on the chemistry of its leads. Luckily Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac, drama school pals who studied together at Juilliard in New York, have that in buckets. Not the sort of ones you’d use to make a sandcastle with, either, rather the kind that would help you to mitigate a major plumbing issue. For incontrovertible proof, see the slo-mo video clip showing them on the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival, which made their viewing public do a massive collective swoon earlier this year.

Chastain and Isaac previously portrayed a married couple in 2014’s A Most Violent Year, a clever, slow-burning thriller. Here, they play Mira and Jonathan who, we learn as they sit down with a PhD student researching success in long-term relationships, have been together for about a decade.

The student has a theory that if “the man is the primary caregiver and the woman is the provider, the marriage lasts longer.” While Jonathan, a college professor whose work means that he can spend more time looking after their daughter Ava, answers her questions fluently and spins out their relationship’s origin story with little flourishes, Mira seems uncomfortable, prevaricating over her responses and fiddling with her phone. She is “in tech,” with a big, important job that necessitates long hours and frequent work trips; in one murmured aside, she notes that she is “still paying for” taking “an extra long maternity leave” while pregnant with Ava.

Jessica Chastain as Mira and Oscar Isaac as Jonathan (HBO / Sky Atlantic)
Jessica Chastain as Mira and Oscar Isaac as Jonathan (HBO / Sky Atlantic)

Director Hagai Levi, who co-created The Affair, has built his story on the scaffolding of Bergman’s, but has switched around the original’s gender dynamics; here it is Chastain’s character who is questioning her relationship, and who is eventually unfaithful.

Even in 2021, it’s a choice that upsets many of our cultural expectations. We’ve seen so many stories about professionally successful women whose personal lives are in freefall that we’re primed to expect that Jonathan would be the one to stray. Mira is never painted as contemptible for choosing to turn away from her family (although one moment when she asks Jonathan whether he’s had a chance to pick up her dry cleaning before she flies off to Israel with her boyfriend is testing).

Mira and Jonathan fight, make up, seem on the verge of reuniting then, after one makes the sort of lacerating remark sharpened by more than 10 years of intimacy, go back to square one. Intense doesn’t cover it, and I can only imagine that some scenes will provoke sharp intakes of breath from couples who thought they’d embarked on a lovely new box set to watch together (perhaps the series should come with a health warning — Bergman’s drama was, after all, credited with bringing divorce rates in Sweden to a record high in the 70s).

Scenes from a Marriage is based on Ingmar Bergman’s influential 70s series (HBO / Sky Atlantic)
Scenes from a Marriage is based on Ingmar Bergman’s influential 70s series (HBO / Sky Atlantic)

Levi goes out of his way to draw attention to the story’s construction. Almost every episode begins with a fourth wall-breaking sequence in which either Chastain or Isaac walks onto set, passing a series of masked production staff before settling into position; we’re immediately alert to the fact that their beautiful Massachusetts home has been built on a soundstage.

It’s a quirk that, the director has explained in interviews, is meant to stress the universality of these scenes and turn what follows into something more abstract — to hint that any couple could walk into those rooms and thrash out these emotional conundrums. Yet much of the power of Chastain and Isaac’s performances stems from their ability to make Mira and Jonathan feel like a specific couple, one shaped and warped by each others’ idiosyncrasies, rather than a type, so you might wonder why Levi bothered. Still, there’s something strangely captivating in pinpointing the moment the actor melts away and the character appears in their place.

“Why does it take so long to break up?” Mira asks towards the end of the series. There are points in Scenes from a Marriage’s cycle of recrimination and reconciliation when you will ponder the same point. After episode one, diversions in the form of supporting characters (a polyamorous couple whose dinner party row seems to prove that non-traditional marriages aren’t exactly utopian either) disappear almost entirely. This is a serious, talky two-hander with very little distraction from the horrible emotional work of extricating your life from someone else’s — but in the hands of Chastain and Isaac, two magnetic actors at the top of their game, it’s hard to look away.

Scenes From a Marriage is on Sky Atlantic and Now, tonight at 9pm.

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