Scenes From a Marriage Review: HBO’s Remake is Unnecessary, But Features Great Performances - VRGyani News and Media

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Sunday, September 12, 2021

Scenes From a Marriage Review: HBO’s Remake is Unnecessary, But Features Great Performances

Every story — no matter how great — can always be improved. Nothing is flawless. Yet despite that, there’s no reason to remake a masterpiece if there’s nothing new to say, and there are some pieces of entertainment that would take incredible amounts of hubris to think one could make them better. Everything can be made better, but no one is clamoring to remake Citizen Kane or reboot The Simpsons. Similarly, the work of Ingmar Bergman is so distinct and has such a specific voice attached to the Swedish auteur, that it’s hard to imagine the confidence one would have to believe they could remake one of his stories. Certainly, Bergman can be improved, but his library of work almost seems impossible to match, let alone build upon.

That’s the task at hand with HBO’s adaptation of Scenes From a Marriage, a story which Bergman originally made for Swedish television, before adapting it into a condensed feature film in the 1970s. While films like Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy and Blue Valentine have been clearly influenced by the original, the story has never received a remake, despite the fact that it seems like prime fodder for talented actors. Directed and co-written by Hagai Levi (alongside Amy Herzog), who was the co-creator of The Affair, and created the series BeTipul, which was adapted into HBO’s In Treatment, this Scenes From a Marriage is led by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, two extremely talented actors who haven't had great roles to sink their teeth into for quite some time. If Scenes From a Marriage had to be remade, it’s hard to imagine a group better than this to do it with.

With Bergman’s original, the series focused on the main couple, played by Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, on sparse sets that made it appear almost like a play, yet the powerful emotions of the story made the audience quickly forget this was a fabrication of a real couple. Levi, however, leans on that façade, usually starting each episode by showing Chastain and Isaac arriving to the set of their couple’s constructed house, full of crew members wearing face masks and face shields. In one episode, Isaac even discusses the original series and how their version can incorporate ideas from the original before the actual filming begins. While Bergman wanted to focus on the emotional honesty of these scenes, making the audience forget this story is fake, Levi’s odd choice to start almost every episode by showing that this is a charade is certainly a strange way to present this series, and almost undercuts its sincerity by making sure the audience is aware this is all false.

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Instead, it’s what Levi adds to the background of these characters that makes this take somewhat fresh. Jonathan was an Orthodox Jew before he met Mira, and despite having mostly left religion behind, the impact of his religion still resonates in his everyday life, however unintentional. Meanwhile, Mira hasn’t been single since she was a teenager, and was part of many bad relationships before meeting Jonathan. By giving a stronger understanding of where these characters came from before entering this relationship, we can start to see the origins or where problems could come from in this marriage.

Yet while the fights between the couple in Bergman’s story were mostly balanced in a way that constantly shifted the blame for whatever given situation, this dynamic is slightly off here, largely in favor of Isaac’s Jonathan. There are slight changes to Jonathan’s story that make him far more sympathetic than Mira throughout most of Scenes From a Marriage, and the inclusion of their child as a major part of this story only makes this conflict harder to balance. Levi’s take also cuts an entire hour from the original, an hour which presented the slow degradation of this marriage, despite their best efforts and clear love for each other. That episode was easily the quietest and slowest of the original series, but without it, the inciting incident of this take is far more sudden and dramatic.

But despite all this, despite Levi’s presenting of this story as false, throwing off the dynamic of this couple, and the general superfluous nature of telling this story in an “updated” fashion, what matters most are the performances, and how Chastain and Isaac sell the honestly of these scenes. In that, these two actors more than deliver. At times, Scenes From a Marriage feels like the series ripping the bandage off old relationships for the viewer, bringing a true and terrifying sincerity to some of the most painful moments in one’s life.

As these grapple with each other, it’s truly difficult to watch the inevitability of what will come. In the third episode, the aptly titled “The Vale of Tears,” Isaac gives one of the most powerful and frank monologues I’ve seen in years, while in the fourth episode, “The Illiterates,” Chastain’s struggle for normalcy after all that has happened between them is genuinely heartbreaking. Scenes From a Marriage absolutely nails the elements of love stories that most film and television are afraid to show: the crippling weight of losing love one thought would always be there, watching a loved one leave a life built together, and the almost animalistic nature a person can fall into after losing such love.

Levi’s directing in these raw moments is thankfully restrained, letting Chastain and Isaac control the scene and navigate this house that is no longer a home. Quite often, the scenes between the two are comprised of unbroken takes, and the lack of a cut only makes these moments even harder to take.

But for fans of the original series, it’s hard to recommend this new Scenes From a Marriage, considering Levi doesn’t do nearly enough to adapt this to the modern day, and doesn’t have anything particularly interesting to say in telling this story again. His gender-swapping of the central couple is a minimal shift at best, and his other changes only show how much of a well-calibrated dynamic Bergman’s original had. For those new to this story, it’s also hard to sell this series of two great actors fighting for five hours. This is an emotionally draining series, and even with the incredible performances, it’s a lot to take in, even an hour at a time.

That being said, for all its flaws and general redundancy, Scenes From a Marriage is worth watching simply for the great performances from Isaac and Chastain, and the powerful poignant truths about love and relationships this pair brings to the screen that is greater than almost any other piece of entertainment. Scenes From a Marriage might be an unnecessary update, but when it’s at its best, Chastain and Isaac make it feel essential.

Grade: B

Scenes From a Marriage premieres September 12 on HBO and HBO Max, with new episodes airing on Sundays.

KEEP READING: Why Ingmar Bergman’s "Worst" Film Deserves to Be Reconsidered



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