Marriage Story - A real life portrait of divorce and separation?
  • 5th Feb 2020
  • Article written by Emma Palmer
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So Oscar fever is upon us once again and one of the films topped for success on the night is “Marriage Story”; nominated for six Oscars including Best Actor, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress for Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson and Laura Dern respectively. A train ride to London saw me finally finding some “alone” time for a sort of busman’s holiday to watch it.


I had of course heard of the film and popped it on my list of films, which in my line of work I really ought to watch, but had found myself expediting it to the top of my list following dinner with some co-workers the week before. A colleague’s comments intrigued me (well disturbed me if truth be told) when he said, “those divorce lawyers were a piece of work” and “it was all going well until they got involved”.


How worrying this sounded! How were I and my fellow divorce lawyers being portrayed? You see most family lawyers in the UK, myself included, see their role as assisting and facilitating a smooth and amicable exit from a marriage that has ended. I am well aware that public perception of divorce lawyers may be slightly different - particularly as peddled in tabloid papers but here was a potentially Oscar winning film which was doing everything it could to damage the professional integrity that we family lawyers hold so dear.


Initially the film opens with scene setting, a sad story of a young actress who married, had a baby and found herself “lost” within her husband’s aims and ambitions. No cruelty, no abuse, just a young woman who after having baby was set on a different path to the one she had imagined. Not perhaps so unusual a tale even in today’s modern world of co-parenting and sharing of work place roles. Both husband and wife start the film movingly by narrating the positive things they have to say about each other - yet at their first mediation session to discuss their separation, Johansson (who plays the wife) cannot read hers out loud. Shortly after she moves to LA to work taking their young son with her.


Enter Dern playing the role of the divorce lawyer she instructs. She is warm, reassuring and clearly capable in their first meeting together but, from the outset of her instruction, the start of the demise of their amicable separation commences.


When we start a divorce process in the UK, any reputable family lawyer (and certainly a Resolution practitioner) will advise that the first contact you make with your soon to be ex-husband or wife is critical and can set the tone for the way your separation and the unravelling of your finances and issues surrounding your children will commence. So, would we advise a client to get her sister to hand a brown envelope without warning to the husband in the kitchen at their mother’s home whilst pronouncing nervously “You’re served!”. Er, no, of course we would not!


This moves swiftly to the husband seeing a lawyer and perhaps my favourite quote in the whole movie for its polar opposite nature to a UK family lawyer’s advice to their client at the outset: “If we start from a position of unreasonable and they start from a position of crazy, then somewhere along the line we should move to a position of reasonable.” The husband, after seeing other lawyers, settles on this particular one concluding, “I needed an arsehole too!”


Perhaps the only quote I could find with any resonance to our way of working in the UK is “divorce lawyers see good people at their worst”. That part I cannot deny. However, it is our job to take that worst moment of someone’s life, warts and all, and help them to channel their anger and unhappiness into as much positivity as possible. If we work on being conciliatory and encouraging a compromise that meets both the needs of the husband and wife as well as their children upon separation, then hopefully we can take that “worst” moment and bring it back around. It is certainly not always an easy path to take but so much easier for the family than “positioning” and “fighting” which serves no purpose in a modern separation.


So Marriage Story shows one example of separation, a bad example of how lawyers are involved in this process in my opinion, and one that serves nobody. However, if you are just looking for stellar acting and a sure fire Oscar winner, then go ahead watch this - it is beautifully filmed. The film ends as movingly as it began with their young son finding the words his mother had written for mediation all that time ago and which she read to screen at the start of the film. He stumbles to read them, not knowing what they are, and his father helps him reading them too for the first time before his mother comes in to overhear them. The family unit is united despite the best efforts of the legal process to derail it.


I would recommend anyone who is separating to watch this film, for one reason only. It shows exactly why choosing a family lawyer who wishes to work with and for your family is so important. There is no place for positioning and winning in family law, only compromise and negotiation and dignity to preserve as best you can the family unit.


If you would like further information about anything in this article written by Emma Palmer, Associate Director, please contact one of the family law team.