‘Scenes From a Marriage’: Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac Untie the Knot in Wrenching HBO Drama

They seem so happy at first, living in suburban comfort and sharing the details of how they met. But a couple only truly knows themselves in private, where all the true feelings can suddenly explode. HBO’s five-part “Scenes from a Marriage” is a bold gesture on two fronts. It is an adaptation of the highly influential 1973 Swedish miniseries by legendary director Ingmar Bergman. Like that great work it then attempts to encompass many of the mysteries and burning questions about love, monogamy and relationships. Director Hagai Levi shadows the original, following some of its outlines while focusing on giving it his own spin. To try and fully remake a Bergman would be too risky, and Levi never goes as metaphysically deep as the master. The task that befalls its magnificent leads, Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac, is also no small feat, since they are following in the footsteps of Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson, two greats who were equal matches to their director. But it is Chastain and Isaac’s dueling of wills that still makes this new “Scenes from a Marriage” absorbing and memorably wrenching.

Like the original it begins with an interview. Jonathan (Isaac) is a philosophy professor at Tufts University and Mira (Chastain) is rising in her tech company, making her the main breadwinner while Jonathan focuses more on taking care of their young daughter Ava (Lily Jane). One of Jonathan’s students uses them as a subject for her study on gender roles and monogamy. They met during college at Columbia. He was an Orthodox Jew beginning to question religion. She was dating a rock star but had already endured several abusive relationships. Now in their early 40s, they seem to have a good balance, but a keen observer will notice certain hesitancy in Mira’s face, and she’s too eager to get out of the interview. Later that evening she reveals to Jonathan she is pregnant. An abortion follows. Time passes and Mira comes home one night with a bombshell: She has fallen in love with an Israeli who runs a startup. She’s leaving the very next morning. The perfect marriage is shattered. Thus begins a longer journey where life in its unexpected turns and pains, tests the depth of a special bond.

The Bergman TV series, and even more the 1974 version paired down into a striking film, has influenced everyone from Woody Allen to Noah Baumbach. Its lasting power is in the way it packs so much emotional force without becoming a romanticized, sentimental take on marriage. Because of its searing honesty, Roger Ebert called it “one of the truest, most luminous love stories ever made.” And in Levi’s adaptation, written with playwright Amy Herzog, it remains a love story, one now keenly tailored to the norms of the 21st century. Now the roles are switched and it is the wife who is not only the breadwinner but also the one who decides to break free from the marriage. In this version, Mira and Jonathan still have a tense dinner in the first episode with two married friends (Corey Stoll and Nicole Beharie) having infidelity issues. Now woke language about open marriages and options is thrown in. When Nicole Beharie tries to justify why she deserves to be openly heartbroken because her lover has left her, since Stoll’s character is a serial cheater, phrases like “social fascism” are thrown around. It’s a subject that fascinates Levi, who also created Showtime’s “The Affair,” a melodrama about a writer tempted to leave his marriage for a waitress who promises new excitement.

While “Scenes from a Marriage” slightly mirrors the original in mostly confining itself to interiors and even keeping the chapter titles (with some slight changes), it builds its own, unique dramatic force. The key setting is Mira and Jonathan’s house, where its walls will be witness to the long battle of their divorce. Mira’s initial confession of wanting out is a torrent of searing honesty, later she will return after a year has passed and Jonathan has built up more confidence, so the tension is full of regret mixed with subtle sniping. Levi sketches the personalities of the couple well in a way that stands them apart from Bergman’s creations. While Bergman’s couple was two very secular Swedes, fully inhabiting a ‘70s world, underlying issues in Mira and Jonathan’s relationship have some unique details you don’t see explored much in modern dramas. Jonathan struggles with his very rooted Judaism and the identity it gives him, which seems like it was once challenged by the very un-religious Mira and how she inducted him into sex. Nothing is so simple, however, and the gender role switch and other elements in the writing challenge us by now easily allowing the viewer to take a side. All over the fights between these two there are pangs of selfishness, pride, fear and impulsiveness. They seem relieved to be out of marriage, yet feel the attraction to have sex again. They know each other well, they know each other intimately, and it’s a history not easily erased. One argument about signing the divorce papers spirals into violence in a sad, pitiful way that feels more tragic than alarming.

Levi’s approach nonetheless still feels a bit colder than Bergman’s. Maybe it’s just the times we now live in, so it’s not necessarily a negative. Bergman was a filmmaker of transcendence, who explored the dark night of the soul in films like “Cries and Whispers” and “Persona.” His “Scenes from a Marriage” had moments that crescendo with monologues about near-spiritual yearnings. Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson’s couple met as idealistic students in revolutionary times. They see therapists but don’t speak in our modern, self-help lingo. Jonathan and Mira are an upper middle class couple. Maybe one reason the union didn’t eventually work is because their ambitions are so different. Jonathan is bookish and sedentary whereas Mira is a tech go-getter constantly flying out, expecting success while meticulously planning everything. In her business she fears time when barely hitting 42. This is also a series that handles certain topics with a non-melodramatic maturity. Mira’s lover, Poli, is not a villain for Jonathan to confront, but a presence in the background capable of leaving Jonathan a sober, honest phone message. He may have a bit of that Israeli arrogance, but he also struggles with trying to decipher who Mira is. More time will pass and nothing will be resolved as in a storybook, because people are more complex than fairy tales. There is love there still between these two, but deeper to define than what a typical romantic movie offers.

The visual style of “Scenes from a Marriage” is elegant, with Levi and cinematographer Andrij Parekh filming interiors with baroque lighting that accentuates faces. This is key because the narrative depends entirely on Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain. Together these Juilliard alumni generate a palpable combination of sexual tension, rage and every other emotion that comes in the battles of a longtime relationship coming apart. Chastain’s profile may slightly remind us of Liv Ullmann’s luminosity, but her Mira is strong and bitter, longing while harboring confusion about what she wants, like all of us when facing tough decisions. Oscar Isaac is also the most vulnerable we’ve ever seen him on screen, gradually shifting from a sensitive personality who admits praying to God for Mira to come back, to a man becoming comfortable with the idea of not having to be “good.”  In this story it is Mira who tells Jonathan he always needs someone to take care of him. It’s not a recycled story of a woman learning independence without a male protector. What a contrast to Isaac’s cold, haunted soldier turned poker player in Paul Schrader’s “The Card Counter,” which releases the same time as this series. Chastain and Isaac show off their range, in roles where the language becomes violent in a particular way. Sometimes nothing cuts deeper than someone you loved saying what they were really feeling all along. 

Expecting a series equal to what Bergman achieved would be expecting too much indeed. Please seek the original, including Bergman’s unforgettable sequel, “Saraband,” but this one can be valued on its own. It is not flawless and Levi does make a few clunky choices, like opening the first four episodes and closing the fifth with showing the actors preparing to shoot, and finally walking off set to their dressing rooms. There’s no need to break the narrative flow like this. A moving, poetic closing shot is also nearly ruined by a reference to Bergman’s original that is too much of an attempt at being meta. One also has to wonder why Levi settles for five episodes when Bergman did six. Yet the acting and writing manage to overcome any qualms. “Scenes from a Marriage” channels through two great performances much of what we will always feel and fear when it comes to the question of sharing our life with someone else. Mira and Jonathan leave behind rooms haunted with memories, exchange words that might never be forgotten, especially the painful ones, but the knot that was tied refuses to just disappear even if the papers were signed.

Scenes from a Marriage” premieres Sept. 12 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.