Some couples, you can just tell that they’re not in a good place. In the opening scene of Scenes From a Marriage, the new HBO limited series, we meet Mira (Jessica Chastain) and Jonathan (Oscar Isaac), who are being interviewed by a grad student (Sunita Mani) about the secrets to a successful marriage. But there’s a palpable uneasiness between Mira and Jonathan as they sit next to each other on the couch. Her smile is a little forced — he comes across a bit skittish, almost as if he’s afraid of saying the wrong thing around her. Even when the grad student gives them an easy question — “How’d you meet?” — the response is tepid, hesitant.
Some couples have a harmonious flow, but with other couples, you sense that something’s off. Mira and Jonathan have a seemingly good life — she’s an executive at a tech company, he’s in academia, they have an adorable little girl — but that ineffable something lingers there between them. Maybe they can feel it, too.
That feeling is echoed by a similar sensation you may notice while watching this five-part, five-hour series, which premieres on September 12th, with a new episode debuting each subsequent Sunday. What initially appears to be a sharp dissection of the landmines that await any long-term couple starts to drift into something a lot less incisive. Like Mira and Jonathan’s relationship, Scenes From a Marriage ultimately feels a bit off, never quite as great as it should be. Over the series’ five-week run, you’ll see some subtle dramatic nuance, some bittersweet observations about the impossibility of monogamy and probably a bit too much capital-A acting. But for all its emotional tumult, Scenes From a Marriage too often mistakes prestige-TV polish for profundity. The show turns marital anguish into awards-season classiness.
The series is a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 miniseries, which was later trimmed down to a feature-length film in the U.S. HBO is being strict about not revealing spoilers, but I will say that you certainly don’t need to see Bergman’s original to appreciate the American redo — but if you have, you’ll recognize some core similarities. For one thing, the casting of a bearded, graying Isaac and a pensive, sullen Chastain makes this couple eerily resemble Erland Josephson and Liv Ullmann from the original. And, with an occasional exception, each episode takes place in a single confined space, mirroring the one-act-play nature of Bergman’s work.
So what new does writer-director Hagai Levi bring to this remake? The man who helped co-create the Israeli drama series BeTipul (which was later turned into In Treatment) and the Showtime drama The Affair doesn’t try to radically reinvent Bergman’s conception of a married couple who, over a series of years, watch their relationship evolve (and sometimes devolve) thanks to infidelity, unpredictable career trajectories and, the biggest challenge of all, the fraying connection between one-time soul mates.
The original Scenes From a Marriage consisted of jewel-like individual episodes that captured the couple at pivotal moments, then dropping back in on them months later to see what had changed between them. (Part of the suspense involved not knowing what their circumstance would be at the start of each new episode.). Levi’s series utilizes the same approach, not always making it clear from chapter to chapter how much time has passed or precisely what the situation is now between Mira and Jonathan. We’re merely bystanders trying to piece together what’s happened in the interim. It’s like checking in with friends you haven’t seen in a while. Maybe Mira’s hair is different. Maybe Jonathan seems a little sadder. It’s a reminder of how much life we miss in between the times we interact with a couple — their whole world could have changed in just a short amount of time.
Chastain and Isaac are both excellent actors, and it’s quietly amusing that — as with their first pairing, the crime drama A Most Violent Year — once again it’s Chastain’s character who’s the more alpha. Pay attention to that initial interview in the first episode, because beyond picking up on some tension between them, we also get a bit of their backstory. How Jonathan was raised Orthodox Jewish, never really being around women until he met Mira in college — and how Mira was the popular girl, maybe the one he never thought he’d land in a million years.
For all of his sober smarts, Jonathan still harbors a bit of that inferiority complex, and that dynamic will play out across Scenes From a Marriage once Mira makes a shocking announcement that changes their relationship. Mira may sometimes seem to have the upper hand in their marriage, but as with most real-life couples, that power struggle teeters back and forth — often offset by a casual, effortless rapport that’s the mark of all long-term partners. Even when things are rocky, there’s a certain shorthand between Mira and Jonathan. They might not always like each other, but they always love each other — and they most certainly know each other, sometimes too painfully well.
Two years ago, one of the big Oscar contenders was Marriage Story, a frank look at a married couple getting divorced. It’s worth pointing out that the original Scenes From a Marriage was cited as the reason why the divorce rate soon spiked in Bergman’s homeland of Sweden — as well as there being an increase in couples seeking marriage counseling. I don’t know if there are any similar statistics in regards to Marriage Story’s impact, but I doubt it, mostly because divorce is far more common now than it was in the early 1970s. Bergman’s miniseries was blunt about the difficulties that occur after “happily ever after,” whereas Noah Baumbach’s 2019 film understood that many marriages don’t last — his film was far more interested in the intricacies of the divorce-industrial complex and how it conspires to turn once-loving partners into bitter enemies.
The problem with Levi’s series is that it doesn’t have a particularly fresh angle to explore — it’s mostly just following in the footsteps of Bergman’s. Granted, there are some new plot twists — which, again, I can’t get into — but I’d argue that their initial surprise quickly dissipates. (And if you haven’t seen the Bergman miniseries/film, it won’t even register why it’s a surprise.) The limited series’ revelations and insights are rather minor, even if they’re delivered with absolute authority by Chastain and Isaac.
Overall, there’s something naggingly perfumed and manicured about the whole affair. It’s not groundbreaking to suggest that HBO specializes in a specific kind of upscale-white-people-problems drama, and even when they’re excellent — The White Lotus, the first season of Big Little Lies — you can’t escape the sameness of the storylines. Completely unintentionally, this Scenes From a Marriage duplicates the dynamic of The White Lotus’ Nicole and Mark Mossbacher, where the wife was the chief breadwinner and the husband felt a bit emasculated by that fact, although he claims otherwise. But the similarities don’t end there: Scenes From a Marriage seems built around the not-especially-novel concept that modern life is hard on even the most well-off individuals, and that shiny exteriors don’t always tell the whole story about what’s happening behind closed doors.
As nimble as Chastain and Isaac are, they can’t escape what’s inherently banal about that premise. No amount of immaculate production design or tasteful music from brother composers Evgueni and Sacha Galperine will rectify that core deficiency — if anything, the classiness only amplifies the problem. The more your eye wanders to Chastain’s terrific outfits or Andrij Parekh’s moody lighting, the more you realize you’re not fully invested in this couple’s negotiation of the bumpy road on which they’ve found themselves. (Adding to the distractions is a hush-hush visual gimmick before each episode that’s meant to remind us that, c’mon, this is all a fiction — not real life. Are we supposed to be blown away that Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac are such good performers that they can play people who aren’t them?)
What keeps propping up this remake is that the core of Bergman’s despairing, sometimes sardonic portrait of modern marriage remains. The two actors ably convey how wrenchingly imperfect love can be — Mira and Jonathan can’t be together, but they can’t be apart, either, and you feel their push/pull heartache. With each new episode, we see them again thrust into each other’s lives, sometimes happily, sometimes not. This Scenes From a Marriage lands in much the same final spot as Bergman’s, bewildered by the hell we put ourselves through to grasp onto something that feels like contentment. But despite its graceful moments and thoughtful execution, the series suffers from the same liability as its characters’ relationship: It’s an appealing package that’s lacking something substantial underneath.