It’s not common for me to advise readers to watch a 294-minute limited series in one go. But Scenes from a Marriage, HBO’s new Ingmar Bergman reboot developed and directed by Hagai Levi, isn’t like most shows.
Starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain as warring couple Jonathan and Mira — from Erland Josephson’s Johan and Liv Ullman’s Marianne the first time around — the five-hour series is best viewed as a long road trip with Isaac’s repressed academic and Chastain’s private sector powerhouse. It lacks the directorial flair of Bergman, obviously. It actually rarely leaves the Long Island house the couple live in with young daughter Ava (Sunita Mani, excellent), but is best when it does. And Scenes From a Marriage has a couple of scenes which are so jarring and frustrating they almost ruin the whole thing.
Otherwise, it’s pretty excellent. Isaac is probably doing the best work of his career as the beleaguered professor. As the tech world girlboss and primary breadwinner, Chastain certainly is. The stellar first episode introduces us to their profound differences and the erratic emotionality which is ultimately all they have in common. Corey Stoll and Nicole Beharie are predictably effective as friends Peter and Kate, whose messy open marriage predictably causes reflection by Mira in particular.
Jonathan just isn’t built that way. A lapsed Orthodox Jew with rigid ideas about family and fatherhood, he isn’t nearly as free-spirited as Mira — though she does like him for a reason. Jonathan’s Jewishness is a central theme of Scenes From a Marriage, with co-writers Levi and Amy Herzog clearly intent on posing the husband’s old-fashioned roots against Mira’s globalist individuality. The tension works, mostly. That’s aside from one scene in which Mira rails against Jonathan’s liking for Shabbat dinners, which is clunkily written and jarringly delivered to the extent I felt it was borderline anti-Semitic. It’s a well-intended scene and an authentically Jewish show, which makes it jut out all the more. The rest of Scenes is carefully and cannily Jewish-minded, with phrases like “dybbuk” and “social fascism” and “revisionist history” thrown around far more appropriately than the “oy veys” I dreaded. Levi’s own schism between his Israeli roots and a more recent, successful career in American television drives that divide without feeling self-referential or indulgent.
Not much of Scenes From a Marriage does feel indulgent, though the very premise of remaking Bergman for TV — worse, streaming — didn’t exactly excite critics. Yet it’s the sort of project which works better than it ought to, and is worth persisting with. Episode 1 is very strong. Episode 4 is fantastic. The rest is between good and great. I heard rumblings that it is too similar to Marriage Story, which isn’t quite true. Jonathan is more interesting than Adam Driver’s Charlie and Mira is far more enthralling than Johansson’s Nicole. Scenes is also more neutral than Baumbach’s intentionally lop-sided film.
And it’s that even-handed perspective which first enlivened Bergman’s series, and similarly breathes life into this. Despite Isaac serving as an executive producer and Levi taking predominant creative control, Herzog and Chastain offer a crucial reply to any threat of hyper-masculinity. Chastain’s performance is wonderful throughout the series, in the most challenged and challenging part of her career. There are even shades of self-awareness, with a Molly’s Game-esque subplot during one episode. From an actress who has occasionally suffered from being a tad too pristine, it’s a refreshing break from a weaker aspect of her canon.
Even if a five-hour marathon some of us critics pulled off in Venice this week is beyond your palette or mental capacity, Scenes From a Marriage is more than worth a spin and, importantly, worth enduring its thornier moments. Isaac, Chastain, Levi and Herzog haven’t quite brought Bergman back to life, but they have given some much-needed CPR in a lifeless moment for prestige television.
This review is from the Venice Film Festival. Scenes from a Marriage will begin airing on HBO beginning September 12 with five weekly episodes.