You spend much of the series desperate for Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac to get on, or at least get it on
Ingmar Bergman’s six-part 1973 series, Scenes from a Marriage, was such a potent portrayal of a marriage falling apart that it was blamed – perhaps apocryphally – for a rise in Swedish divorce rates. Culturally, its influence lingers in everything from Linklater’s Before trilogy to Marriage Story, to the most recent series of Master of None. Anything where a middle-class married couple argues in excruciating detail for a long time is operating somewhere in Bergman’s shadow. On the one hand, it’s baffling why anyone would try to remake such a classic, but perhaps it’s more honest than a thinly veiled remake pretending to be original. Luckily, the new version has so much fine acting and such a mature and intelligent script that it more than merits its existence.
Bergman’s version starred Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann as Johan and Marianne, the couple who seemingly have it all but whose outward contentment belies irreconcilable problems. Here, the writer-director Hagai Levi, who created The Affair and In Treatment – the man loves conversation – casts Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain as Jonathan and Mira, with the setting transplanted to affluent Boston.
From the start, the update works hard, possibly too hard for some, to justify itself. Bergman began with his couple being interviewed for a magazine article. In Levi’s lengthy opening scene, Jonathan and Mira submit to questioning from a doctoral student researching longevity in a marriage: a kind of couples therapy. We learn about them through their answers.
The roles have been reversed, to bring things up to 21st-century speed. She is the main breadwinner, a senior executive at a tech company, but feels guilty about not spending more time with their daughter. He is an academic, who does more of the childcare. Jonathan’s easy-liberal charm suppresses more conservative leanings, perhaps the legacy of his orthodox Jewish upbringing, which he has trouble admitting. Mira feels the pressure of having it all, but struggles to articulate her frustrations. She knows she is not meant to be unhappy when Jonathan is such an ostentatiously good guy, but that’s a problem in itself.
Both characters are smart enough to interrogate their own thoughts in the way of people who are familiar with therapy. They endlessly second-guess their instincts to the point where they talk themselves out of what they really believe, if “what they really believe” isn’t also an invention. In this world, everything is a performance, a conceit reinforced by the framing device, which breaks the fourth wall to show the set, with Covid-masked crew milling around. It’s a rebuke and a challenge to the audience, and to marriages: this may all be make-believe, but if it’s believable enough that you can forget that, what’s the difference?
In the first episode, Jonathan and Mira’s difficulties, still below the surface, are set in contrast to those of their friends Kate (Nicole Beharie) and Peter (Corey Stoll), who have an open marriage. It causes at least as many problems as it solves.
There are benefits to sticking faithfully to a formula that’s nearly 50 years old. HBO’s update, over five hour-long episodes, has a drawn-out intensity and unhurried pace that’s unusual in modern TV. Were it not for the original series, it would be hard to pitch for something so indulgent of its leads. Jonathan and Mira fight and make up and fight again, without much relief. It is not easy to watch, and you won’t want to do more than one episode at a time.
The stars, who are real-life pals and have played a couple before, in A Most Violent Year, have such incendiary chemistry that you are desperate for them to get on. Or at least get it on. (Spoiler: they do.) Their red-carpet display at the Venice Festival, in which Isaac kissed his co-star’s upper arm while staring at her intensely, the only way Isaac knows how to stare, provoked such agitation online that it risked overshadowing the series itself. Their performances earn Scenes from a Marriage its place at the table. Breaking up is hard to do this well. But if you’ve been with your partner for a while and are looking for something comforting to settle down with on a Saturday night, be warned.