Remaking a much-loved Ingmar Bergman classic is no mean feat – but Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac have the chemistry. Here’s our spoiler-free review of the HBO mini-series that’ll shred your heart this autumn…
It was the armpit sniff that rocked the internet’s world (for 72 hours). It was an intimate, imaginative – and allegedly accidental – display of red carpet sauce that was slowed down, looped, and studied with academic reverence.
What we’re referring to, if you’ve somehow forgotten (and really, how could you?), is that moment at the Venice Film Festival when Oscar Isaac tenderly pressed his nose into the upper arm of Jessica Chastain, and a thousand horny memes were born.
After all, the majority of us have been inside for 18 months, interacting via screens and barely touching another human, so this display of public randiness was a cause célèbre, an excuse for our imaginations to run rife and live vicariously through two very hot people – who have clearly been to the Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga School of Film Promotion – putting on a goddamn show.
And what a performance it was, as not only are they friends of 20-plus years who’ve previously played a married couple (in 2014’s A Most Violent Year), and are happily married to people that aren’t each other; they also happen to be starring in a prestige limited series that they produced. And now that series is about to hit a small screen near you.
Scenes From A Marriage is a remake of the 1973 Ingmar Bergman mini-series of the same name, written and directed this time around by Hagai Levi (The Affair). But here, in 2021, Sweden is swapped for Boston; Marianne and Johan are now Chastain and Isaac’s Mira and Jonathan; and the gender roles have been flipped, and ever so slightly flopped.
It opens, as the original did, with an interview. But this time Jonathan, a philosophy professor, has offered up his and Mira’s relationship for a grad student’s research into how heterosexual marriages are more likely to succeed when the woman is the main financial provider, and the man is the primary caregiver.
Mira, a successful tech executive, is clearly uncomfortable with the level of detail the research is going into – the guilt of the working mother is practically seeping out of her. Jonathan, however, is at ease holding court with a fellow academic, and has no problem answering for his wife, speaking over her at times and spouting the virtues of their modern union, while seemingly oblivious that not all is as well as he’s professing it to be.
The interview is followed by an uncomfortable dinner party that exists somewhere between Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding and Beetlejuice’s Day-O on the scale of “let’s not do that again”. Their couple friends are played by Nicole Beharie (Miss Juneteenth) and Corey Stoll (House Of Cards) – on brief but fine form – and a conversation plays out that reverberates throughout the rest of the series.
For fear of stepping into spoiler territory, we won’t go into any more plot detail than that, as this is a series – although a remake of a landmark show – that is probably at its most powerful if the viewer doesn’t know where all the cards may fall. Although, dear reader, if you’ve even glimpsed this trailer you can probably divine that the cards don’t fall into beds of roses.
What this show does very well, with its long two-person takes, is illustrate how people with an intimate knowledge of one another can devastate each other, by picking up on certain words or throwaway remarks that shift the atmosphere of a room and morph into personal warfare.
It’s unpleasantly familiar for anyone who has felt those moments of standing on the precipice of normality only to have a turn of phrase tip you over the edge into an unravelling argument.
Most episodes, although they span months, then years, play out in real-time in the confines of the family home. The intensity and claustrophobia of some of these scenes made our stomachs flip, which is a testament to the visceral performances.
What might seem a little odd to viewers, though, is the way each episode starts by deliberately breaking the fourth wall and reminding the viewer that what we’re watching is make-believe. We follow “Jessica” or “Oscar” on set, surrounded by the crew in masks, as they become “Mira” and “Jonathan” once “action” is called.
Could this be to highlight the extraordinary circumstances the show was made under? To soften the blow of the emotional turmoil that’s about to take place by reminding us it’s fiction? It creates a distance, and may take viewers a few minutes to get into each episode because of it.
Of course, there have been the usual grumbles from various corners of the internet of “why remake” and “why mess with a classic” but, we think as any Shakespeare or Spider-Man adaption could rebuff, it doesn’t detract from the original, so why not?
Bergman’s series has served as an inspiration for decades of filmmakers including Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, Blue Valentine, Marriage Story, season 3 of Master of None, and the (current) director and writer’s previous show The Affair.
Marital strife seems to be Hagai Levi’s speciality, so much so that Bergman’s son, Daniel Bergman (who also serves as an exec producer on this version), reached out to ask Levi if he’d be interested in remaking it for a modern audience. Now that’s an offer you can’t refuse.
If Bergman’s message in the original was that the institution of marriage kills love (and was responsible for a rise in divorce rates in Sweden), then Hagai Levi’s message seems to be about how hard it is to truly separate from someone you have deeply loved. Oscar Isaac’s Jonathan has a line that love is “like a piece of tape that you rip off, and try to reapply. It might stick, but it’s never going to be like the first time.” Anyone who has loved and struggled with the aftermath can feel the weight in that.
It’s a tough watch at times, but if you like your TV shows to serve up all of the emotions, then it’s well worth your time (just maybe don’t watch it all in one sitting).
Scenes From A Marriage starts on Sky Atlantic on Monday 11 October.
Emily Gargan is one of Stylist’s resident film critics. She has a deep love for Pedro Almodóvar, Winona Ryder, felt-tip pens, and dogs named after food.