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Scenes from a Marriage episode 1 review: Jessica Chastain, Oscar Isaac’s claustrophobic drama is vapid and monotonous

Mira and Jonathan, a one-in-love couple, slowly witness a breakdown of their marriage. As they desperately try to navigate a middle-ground, tensions keep escalating till it becomes almost unbearable.

Shreya Paul
Sep 14, 2021
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Rating: 3

HBO’s new drama series, Scenes from a Marriage, based on the Swedish mini-series penned by Ingmar Bergman, promises a world full of claustrophobic exchanges; a world where relationships gradually crumble to become shells of their former selves, pulling in the people involved in it too. Director Hagai Levi (who also co-writes along with Amy Herzog) positions a couple at the centre of action. Mira (Jessica Chastain) and Jonathan (Oscar Isaac) lead a fairly normal married life when the episode begins.

Mira is an ambitious tech executive, while Jonathan is a philosophy professor who also doubles up as the primary caregiver to their daughter. Levi subverts the gender roles from the original 1973 series and makes Chastain’s character front and centre of the ‘moving on’ process, thus leaving Isaac’s Jonathan low and betrayed, almost as if his continual contributions to the family unit were getting completely ignored.

As their perfect marriage disintegrates, the two get involved with other people. The lack of space (both metaphorically and literally, since most of the series is shot with the confines of their rooms) between the two intensifies, and the atmosphere is charged heavily with a sense of foreboding.

The pilot episode understandably sets the tone for the series and hints at possible sub-themes like loss of passion, infidelity, parenting, and domestic violence. In fact, Levi even retains the original titles from Bergman’s series and names episodes like Innocence and Panic, The Vale of Tears and The Illiterates.

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Keeping the hat-tips aside, Levi’s creative decision to choose this subject and place it in the contemporary context feels slightly half-baked. When Bergman’s series premiered, it created ripples across the entertainment circuit. Divorce dramas or separation dramas were a comparatively new genre that audiences and makers were still exploring. In a world that was yet to witness the catharsis of a Kramer vs Kramer (1979) or War Of The Roses (1989), Scenes from a Marriage held significant creative value. The same cannot be said of 2021, a major reason why Scenes from a Marriage slips into occasional monotony. Levi purposefully keeps the space around the couple very limited, so that the tension palpitates across to the audience.

Both Chastain and Isaac are in brilliant form. The actors succinctly capture the helplessness of a breaking relationship, once defined by passion and love for each other. The two artists inject considerable innocence into their performances as well, a trick that goes a long way in keeping viewers hooked on what they’re undergoing. But the illusion soon cracks. Levi is unable to present the narrative to say anything of value, making the writing also feel dated at junctures.

Their electric interpersonal dynamic aside, Scenes from a Marriage hardly manages to make any statement. Viewers are bound to feel disassociated with the tense couple after an interim, making the episode feel longer than necessary.

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Additionally, Levi chooses a dramatic trope before the episode plays. He uses behind the scenes footage to introduce audiences into Mira and Jonathan’s worlds. We see how Chastain arrives to work amidst the pandemic precautions, how she is referred to as ‘Jess’ by crew members; even the call of ‘cut’ during the shoot. Levi’s creative decision to include these snippets seem unclear, but it hardly does anything to salvage the borderline hackneyed narratives that the episode is willing to spotlight.

In a world where there are numerous films and shows based on similar concepts of separation, Scene from a Marriage is hardly able to create a significant dent. Though Chastain and Isaac are in sublime form, their talents feel wasted under the weight of uninspiring dialogues and a weak plotline.

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