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Scenes From A Marriage review: Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain deliver amazing performances

Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) and Mira (Jessica Chastain) in Scenes From A Marriage. (Still: HBO)
Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) and Mira (Jessica Chastain) in Scenes From A Marriage. (Still: HBO) 

Length: 5 episodes (56-67 minutes each)

Cast: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain

Premieres on HBO on 13 September. Subsequent episodes air on Mondays 9am and 10pm.

4 out of 5 stars.

With divorce rates on the rise, Scenes From A Marriage might seem like an apt social commentary. The five-part miniseries revolves around the deteriorating marriage of psychology professor Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) and tech executive Mira (Jessica Chastain), and is a remake of the 1973 TV series of the same title by Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. That series was so popular that it later got re-edited into a feature length film, and it was said to have inspired filmmakers like Ari Aster, Richard Linklater, and even Woody Allen. But does this 2021 version live up to the 1973 one?

Mira (Jessica Chastain) and Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) in Scenes From A Marriage. (Still: HBO)
Mira (Jessica Chastain) and Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) in Scenes From A Marriage. (Still: HBO) 

Well, Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain are amazing thespians, and it’s a treat to see them on screen. The vast majority of the series has just the two of them in long and intense scenes, as they clash, make up, negotiate, bargain, despair, and clash once more. The fact that this alone is enough to keep you engrossed is testament to their incredible performances as a couple who falls in and out of love, and struggles to rationalise and do what’s right — especially with a daughter in tow.

Mira (Jessica Chastain) in Scenes From A Marriage. (Still: HBO)
Mira (Jessica Chastain) in Scenes From A Marriage. (Still: HBO) 

As someone who grew up seeing his own parents’ marriage fall apart, the dialogue rings true — as does the physical violence that comes with arguments fraught with emotion. It’s never a black-and-white affair for a divorce — you can’t have a clean break with someone that you’ve shared so much of your life with. The show captures the small excuses, the giving in to temptation when lines have been drawn, and the unwillingness to go through with a difficult decision, making it feel so authentic in its portrayal of a divorce.

Friends (Nicole Beharie and Corey Stoll) join Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) and Mira (Jessica Chastain) for dinner in Scenes From A Marriage. (Still: HBO)
Friends (Nicole Beharie and Corey Stoll) join Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) and Mira (Jessica Chastain) for dinner in Scenes From A Marriage. (Still: HBO) 

Yet, it’s 2021. It feels like there should have been more to this series, that it would have offered some sort of insight to divorces (and by extension, marriages). It was probably a taboo topic to depict on television back in 1973, but not so in 2021. A straightforward remake definitely wouldn’t have as much impact given today’s context, and it’s a shame that the producers didn’t see fit to add more to the show.

That’s not to say that there’s nothing new. Some episodes begin with a scene which shows the actors (not the characters) on set, as they prepare for the scene — before segueing into the actual beginning of the episode itself and having the story begin proper. And those opening scenes have the production crew decked out in masks, reminding you that this is new and current and shot during a pandemic, which promised a fresh new adaptation of Scenes From A Marriage… but eventually devolved into a strange storytelling technique. It’s weird, and you never quite get used to it.

Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) and Mira (Jessica Chastain) in Scenes From A Marriage. (Still: HBO)
Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) and Mira (Jessica Chastain) in Scenes From A Marriage. (Still: HBO) 

It’s sort of balanced out by the closing sequences, which offer pensive shots of the house that they live in accompanied by haunting music, presumably to help you ponder over the state of their marriage and how much it has fallen apart in each episode. It definitely leaves you with a sense of loss, echoing how the main characters feel. In a way, this progression of an avant garde opening sequence with a more traditional, artistic closing seems to reinforce how drastically the marriage changes in each episode.

The most painful scenes, however, aren’t when the main characters are together – it’s when Jonathan or Mira are alone. Their pain is so visceral that it’s almost impossible to bear, and that’s when you see how badly the marriage impacts them. These scenes feel like they should be extracted and dissected for all aspiring actors to watch, and held up as a masterful example of solo performances.

Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) in Scenes From A Marriage. (Still: HBO)
Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) in Scenes From A Marriage. (Still: HBO) 

Scenes From A Marriage is a must watch for all acting students, what with its riveting performances and intricate relationship between the characters. As a remake, it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. But it displays such class and finesse that you can’t help but forgive it, because you’re too busy enjoying Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain’s performances.

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