Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac bring raw intensity to a flawed ‘Scenes From a Marriage’

Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac bring raw intensity to a flawed ‘Scenes From a Marriage’
Jojo Whilden/HBO

Although loosely adapted from director Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 Swedish miniseries, “Scenes From a Marriage” bears a close resemblance in style and tone to “In Treatment,” another HBO series dreamt up by Israeli producer Hagai Levi, who presides over this. Claustrophobic and intense, the format provides a strong actor’s showcase for Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac but a less satisfying experience for viewers.

The five-part series employs an interesting and somewhat puzzling device, in each episode showing the actors before filming begins under Covid protocols, walking through the set surrounded by masked crew members. It’s a way of establishing the theatrical qualities of the presentation, although aside from appreciating the extra degree of difficulty, essentially an unnecessary device.

The premiere then proceeds to introduce Mira (Chastain) and Jonathan (Isaac), married for almost a decade with a young daughter.

The introduction comes by way of an interview with a grad student working on her thesis, exposing tensions within the marriage despite their seemingly outward happiness. He’s an academic who has lapsed in strict adherence to his Jewish faith, while she’s a successful businesswoman whose career — more lucrative than his — has taken precedence over his.

Levi significantly contemporizes the plot, but the strains and stresses associated with sustaining a marriage — and potentially ending one — are all on display, as information drips out about the relationship and the details behind Mira’s half-spoken sentences and pained expressions.

The performances are raw and starkly presented. In sports terms, Isaac and Chastain leave it all on the field — and did their part to promote the show with a viral red-carpet moment at the Venice Film Festival — in what is essentially a two-character piece with a few cameos, such as Corey Stoll and Nicole Beharie as another couple (with their own significant issues) that comes over for dinner.

Where “Scenes From a Marriage” falters throughout is in the wild nature of the swings in Mira and Jonathan’s interactions and behavior, making hairpin turns from civil to hostile to sexual and back again. It’s hard to get lost in the drama when the dialogue and situations are this stagy and manicured.

Like HBO’s recent revival of “In Treatment,” the confined action and minimal cast makes this a particularly shrewd addition to the lineup strictly as a logistical matter, one that includes Bergman’s son, director Daniel Bergman, among the executive producers along with the two stars.

Still, the art-house credentials of the name aside, “Scenes From a Marriage” has the conspicuous feel of one of those vanity projects in which premium networks and streaming services allow talent to indulge, with the marquee value of the casting more than enough to justify the dice roll.

At its core the series offers the not-quite-revelatory reminder that marriage can be hard and unraveling one tends to be even harder, especially when children are involved.

Nevertheless, it’s possible to admire the artistry and hard work that went into this production without feeling truly engaged by it, either emotionally or intellectually. In that sense, the “We’re just putting on a show” framing might have served a purpose, though not necessarily in the way intended.

“Scenes From a Marriage” premieres Sept. 12 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia.

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