It must be daunting to take on a revered piece of work like Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, but Hagai Levi decided to project Bergman’s work through a modern lens with his five-part limited series of the same name. The elegantly produced series reteams A Most Violent Year co-stars Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, in some of the best work they both have done in a while.
Those familiar with Bergman’s piece know it began as a mini-series in 1973 and then a feature film the following year (using Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson in both iterations). Levi has chosen the limited series format, which has become increasingly popular, especially on HBO, but doesn’t always give this story the adequate room breathe. Bergman’s film, just shy of three hours, might be condensed from the original story, but has a more natural flow as a film.
Scene from a Marriage is about time. It’s about the toll time takes on a couple’s relationship and segmenting the story into five parts is a risk because viewers, who become emotionally invested in the characters, might find pieces to be missing. How did the relationship transpire from the first episode to the next? Luckily, a pair of compelling performances act as our guide through the lives portrayed in the series.
Isaac and Chastain star as Jonathan and Mira. They have been together for a while, and as the series is opening, they are having discussions about gender and identity with a researcher. Jonathan is entirely engaged in the conversation, but Mira feels distant and indifferent. Comparatively, Mira always seems a bit more removed than Jonathan, which creates a bit of an emotional imbalance in their relationship. From the opening shot, a strain is apparent in their marriage and the series doesn’t necessarily take the time to investigate why but show the characters approach to moving forward.
Isaac and Chastain have such a comfortable and lived-in chemistry together, as they did as husband and wife in the excellent A Most Violent Year. Like any relationship, Mira and Jonathan’s is far from perfect, and Scenes from a Marriage relies on two actors to comfortably wade into uncomfortable places and discussions together. Isaac and Chastain more than succeed in doing that. This is the best Chastain has been in quite some time, shifting her career into a lot of unseen independent films or disposable big budget movies. No viewer familiar with her work needs a reminder that she’s one of our finest actresses, but Scenes from a Marriage is just another example proving such.
It’s hard to fit a lifetime into five hour-long episodes, but Levi makes the best of the construct he is working with to tell this story. Some familiar faces show up (including Corey Stoll and Nicole Beharie), but the entire focus is on Isaac and Chastain’s characters. They are the series’ heart and soul and it’s impossible to not get lost in their performances.
Scenes from a Marriage will debut on HBO on Sunday, September 12. The entire series was screened for this review.