HBO Takes On Scenes From A Marriage
In 1974 one of the greatest mini-series of all time premiered on Swedish television. Ingmar Bergman wrote and directed what many consider the crowning achievement in one of the greatest artists of all time: Scenes from a Marriage. Starring Erland Josephson and Liv Ullman, one of Bergman’s former lovers and greatest muses, the series examined six separate episodes from a decade in the marriage of a professional Swedish couple whose married life unspools. To consider how powerful this series was at the time, in the weeks following marriage counselors throughout Sweden were overwhelmed by calls and letters seeking advice to see if they should stay with their partner — something that the industry was not prepared for at the time. Critically, the series was so well regarded, it was released to American film audiences and both Bergman and Ullman were talked about for Oscar nomination that were squashed due to the fact it had been a TV series.
The series was recently given a new release on Criterion DVD. Its reputation has been so formidable that even after almost half a century, it had not been remade for American television though several names were talked about. Even HBO, the king of limited series, has only aired its remake now. I imagine there are many even now who would call them presumptuous to try and remake Bergman. Then you have to consider who they cast in the leads.
Oscar Isaac may be one of the greatest actors you’ve never heard of. It is more than likely that you know his name only for playing Poe in the controversial new Star Wars Trilogy. But there is a reason that when the New York Times listed the twenty five greatest actors and actress of the first twenty years of the millennium, Isaac was one of them. From the title role in Inside Llewyn Davis to the doomed mayor of Yonkers in another brilliant HBO limited series Show Me a Hero, Isaac has a gift for playing the everyman. His greatest role to date was as a twisted billionaire in Ex Machina, who’s created the first real A.I and who with each passing test seems more insane than Victor Frankenstein ever was.
Everybody knows who Jessica Chastain is. She’s one of the sexiest and greatest actresses in the past decade. She first broke big in her Oscar nominated role in The Help, but that was just one of the five extraordinary supporting roles she gave in 2011 and was arguably the most conventional. ‘Conventional’ would not be a word to describe any of the performances she’s given since. From the woman who tracked down Osama Bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty to two very different astronauts in Interstellar and The Martian to one of the great undervalued performances I’ve seen in years Molly Bloom in Molly’s Game, a woman who runs an illegal poker game for reasons not even she can fully comprehend.
And Isaac and Chastain did not take these roles by chance. They have been friends for years and in fact have already played a married couple with an even more complicated relationship in yet another film that slipped under everybody’s radar: A Most Violent Year. Isaac plays the owner of a fuel company with a very specific moral compass that is tested in 1970s New York. Chastain is his Hasidic wife who is supportive but has her own opinions that end up driving them to the brink. After everything their characters went through in that movie, it might seem like the roles in Scenes from a Marriage would be a walk in the park. It doesn’t take long to be disillusioned of this.
I have chosen not to see the original so I can go into my review with a clean slate, and after watching the first episode ‘Innocence and Panic’ , you can tell early on this isn’t going to be a series even at the same level of any HBO’s watermark. The emphasis of is on ‘Scenes’ as much as it is ‘Marriage’. The first episode is divided into five separate scenes with no noticeable cuts. The passage of time is denoted when the camera pulls away and we find ourselves in a different period. There are five very distinct segments in the first episode: Mira and Jonathan sit down for a long conversation with a colleague of his who seems to be studying long-term monogamous relationships. We learn the two have been married for ten years; Jonathan’s an academic, Mira’s in tech. They have a daughter of whom Jonathan is the primary caregiver. You get the feeling in that conversation that Jonathan is the more dominant personality.
The next scene involves a dinner with a couple (Corey Stoll and Nicole Beharie) who are in an open marriage that clearly isn’t working. At one point, Mira walks up to get away with the wife and they have a long conversation, which ends with the friend kissing. Does Mira take a second too long to push her away? They go back downstairs; the conversation’s become louder.
The next cut, Jonathan and Mira are getting ready for bed. Mira reveals that she’s pregnant. There is a long conversation, where both seem simultaneously happy and upset about this, but they decide to have the child — Jonathan makes plans to remodel the house The final scene is the most drastic cut — we’re in what’s clearly an OB-GYN and either by choice or due to medical circumstance (it’s not clear) Mira has decided to terminate the pregnancy. The last scene shows Mira breaking down in tears. It’s the first purely emotional response we’ve seen from her in the entire episode.
Is it a bit too early to make a decision about Scenes from a Marriage? I can say that technically, it’s magnificent. The writing by Hagai Levi (who was one of the people behind The Affair, a series that also took a deep look at how a seemingly perfect marriage can break up) is superb, the direction brilliant and Isaac and Chastain have already shot themselves up to contending for next year’s Emmys. I can also tell this is not going to be an easy watch for the lion’s share of HBO fans. There’s none of the mystery that surrounds the best of David E. Kelley’s work; this is going to be raw viewing for everybody who dares to go through it.
During the past year, I imagine many couples in quarantine have been assessing the idea of commitment and marriage. The couples therapy industry is already in overdrive here in America. I’m not saying that the new Scenes from a Marriage will cause a similar overload as it did in 1970s Sweden. But we may be taking a whole new look at what even a ‘perfect’ marriage may be.
Note: In case HBO does what it has done for Big Little Lies, The White Lotus and maybe Mare of Easttown, it’s worth noting that Bergman came back to this situation with the same actors as well in his very last film, ‘Faithless’ (2000). Just saying.
My Score: 4.5 stars.