Rarely do we want to watch a show or movie about a couple in distress, but stories like this resonate deeply in the right hands. HBO’s Scenes from a Marriage, based on the Swedish series by Ingmar Bergman, is one such show; we didn’t ask for the gutting emotional journey it takes us on, but the experience is still mesmerizing and cathartic.
We meet Mira (Jessica Chastain) and Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) in episode 1, a married couple with a young daughter and no shortage of affection and respect for one another. They’re not having problems at the outset, but even the first scene is dense with dread; like 2019’s Marriage Story, this is not a peek into nuptial idyll, and the facade is quickly stripped away.
A viral Venice Film Festival clip already gave the series all the publicity it needs, and demonstrated in under 60 seconds that Isaac and Chastain’s chemistry is tumultuous and hypnotic. They pour themselves into Mira and Jonathan — comfortable, passionate, virulent, copacetic, and everything in between, creating a wrenchingly believable relationship over key moments in its lifetime. Isaac expertly explores Jonathan’s frustration without turning into a caricature of rage, and Chastain’s tears — however fitful or quiet — will break your heart.
Scenes from a Marriage is at its best when most stripped-down, which to be fair is most of the show. A few random interludes show Isaac and Chastain walking onto the actual set, heavy-handedly underlining the Scenes part of this project and needlessly distracting from powerful performances. Levi’s skillful writing captures the complexity of Mira and Jonathan’s marriage, never making either into the obvious bad guy and allowing them to dwell in emotional gray areas. Though their fights and hurdles are predictable, there’s no denying a quality of execution that makes you long for Levi to tackle more exciting stories.
Still, the series cuts you open. Like Master of None: Moments in Love, it’s slow and meditative and at times downright torturous as the characters fight for or against each other. The titular scenes are dense and lengthy; Mira or Jonathan may wish to fast forward to the end of a fight, or rewind to a happier moment, but they cannot and neither can we. We push through their discomfort and hope in real-time and it’s hard to shake when the episodes end.
Scenes from a Marriage is not particularly revelatory in premise, but it’s a fitting vehicle for Chastain, Isaac, and Levi to flex some serious finesse. It’s an embarrassment of riches, to be sure, but never ostentatious with its merits — carefully crafted and mindfully executed, even if the story is all-too familiar.
Scenes from a Marriage premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO and HBO Max, with new episodes weekly.