There are several ‘marriage’ films, i.e. films about living together for a long time, but this latest narrative is ‘long-form’ in the shape of four 55-57 minute episodes broadcast over a couple of weeks in primetime slots on BBC1 in the UK. The serial is written and directed by Stefan Golaszewski who had previously written two critically-praised comedy series, Him & Her (2010-2013) and Mum (2016-19), both long-running but with shorter episodes of 28-30 minutes. The new serial was given a huge build-up by BBC1 with emphasis on the two lead actors, Sean Bean and Nicola Walker, and on the complete authorial control of Golaszewkski. I haven’t seen the earlier two series so I’ll comment here only on what is in this serial, but recognising that for some viewers expectations were in place because of the earlier works.
The marriage of the title is between Emma (Nicola Walker) and Ian (Sean Bean) and appears to have lasted 27 years so far. Episode 1 sees the couple waiting to fly back to the UK from a holiday in Spain. Emma is looking forward to new challenges in her job but Ian has been made redundant and has also recently lost his mother. The enigma is whether the couple will be able to carry on as before with Ian at home and Emma at work. We will meet a limited number of other characters including Emma’s elderly father Gerry (James Bolam) and the couple’s adopted daughter Jessica (Chantelle Alle). Emma works for a problematic younger boss Jamie (Henry Lloyd-Hughes). Both Jessica and Jamie have their own separate sub-narratives as well as being part of Emma and Ian’s story. The attempt to present an ‘authentic’ study of a marriage is based on dialogue comprising ‘real’ speech patterns, often accompanied by long pauses and sometimes mute responses. Emma and Ian’s family don’t communicate directly and rarely ‘speak as they feel’. The script also focuses on quotidian moments such as emptying the dishwasher and in the opening episode a long argument between Emma and Ian about a jacket potato which Ian wanted but the Spanish café probably doesn’t serve any way. As the first dialogue in the narrative, the discussion about the potato got a lot of attention from reviewers and audiences alike. A little later when the couple are sat on the plane, we realise that Ian is a nervous flyer so the argument may have been a cover for his distress about the flight to come. The other feature of the serial is the use of a snatch of ‘modern classical’ choral singing which is played at the beginning and end of each episode. This has proved to be divisive for audiences with many negative responses. (I am included in those annoyed by the music.)
The negative reactions from many viewers includes the complaint that ‘nothing happens’ and ‘there is no plot’. This is nonsense of course although it is true that the ‘narrative content’ is less in terms of events than might be expected in a drama lasting nearly four hours. But the investigation of the marriage and the concerns about family members are important aspects of the plot. There is a major incident from the earlier part of the marriage which may never have been fully worked through and this prompts reflection and emotional response in the present. On the other hand there is a potentially shocking sub-narrative which marginally involves Emma but it is not followed through. The narration is unconventional for this kind of drama format which tends to be used for genre narratives such as melodramas or crime fictions. It is the unconventional narration which has confused some audiences I think.
A couple of reviewers/commentators suggest that the style or ‘feel’ of the drama is reminiscent of Mike Leigh’s films and TV plays. I too thought of Leigh at a couple of points. I’m not a fan of Mike Leigh, feeling that he appears to mock his characters and I find his dramas cruel at times and sometimes excruciating to watch. I also found Marriage excruciating on several occasions. In fact I skipped some scenes and then went back to watch them later on iPlayer. I don’t think Golaszewski is following Leigh and I didn’t feel that his treatment of the characters was cruel but the Leigh reference does prompt me to query the comic possibilities of Marriage. This in turn raises questions about performance, especially of Walker and Bean. It also possibly links to the way that Golaszewski writes and links together scenes. I did feel that these were sometimes reminiscent of sitcoms. I wondered if some scenes were meant to be funny rather than cringe-making?
Viewers will know Walker and Bean. Nicola Walker is now approaching ‘National Treasure’ status in the UK as an actor, primarily in TV drama but also on the stage, radio and film. Aspects of some of her roles have included comedy but mainly she appears in dramas. Bean first became famous in the Sharpe TV series (1993-2008) about the adventures of a soldier during the Napoleonic Wars. Later he appeared in ‘tough guy’ roles in several feature films, including historical dramas such as Game of Thrones. Critics praised his performance in the TV series Broken (2017), written by Jimmy McGovern in which he played the lead as a parish priest. I’m more familiar with Walker than Bean but I struggled with both the depictions of both characters. Emma swears a lot. She’s struggling with her father but seemingly doing well in her job at a small legal services company, though it isn’t totally clear what her role is. Ian appears on the verge of a breakdown. We are not sure what his job was or why he was made redundant. His attempts to find another job seem doomed and he is awkward in any form of social interaction. He implies that he had a previous position with some responsibility. I’ve read accounts which suggest that Emma works for Jamie who has inherited his father’s solicitor’s practice. It seems like a very unlikely solicitor’s office to me, up the stairs in a run-down block. I’m no expert on legal firms these days but haven’t they mostly been taken over by larger partnerships? I can’t imagine trusting Jamie to do anything for me.
I guess I’m just expressing my sense of dislocation with this serial, partly because it seems to be filmed in various different locations in different parts of the country. Nicola Walker is quoted as saying that she doesn’t like having a back story and that Golaszewski likes to write just the scene, rather than providing context. Unfortunately I’m the opposite. I like to know who the characters are and where the story is set. I watched this serial almost as a duty and I wanted to see it all to try to understand how it was supposed to work and what the fuss was about. Apart from a couple of scenes, I can’t say I enjoyed the experience. I think it’s inevitable that faced with Emma and Ian, most audiences will wonder what has happened in this marriage over the past 27 years. There is one incident we do learn about. Otherwise, all we know is that a once working-class couple have managed to bring up an adopted daughter and earned enough to buy a semi in a suburban street, running two cars. There are a couple of examples of the couple’s lack of pretension and fondness for curling up on the sofa but those are the only clues to their social mobility, I think. And what of the acting? These are professionals and they are very good at performing for a relatively inexperienced director. They have also developed their own acting persona which audiences will negotiate in what are less familiar roles. They enable Golaszewski to show aspects of a long-term relationship on screen that are not often presented. But for me the overall narrative structure doesn’t work. I don’t feel emotionally involved with the characters or invested in their story. The camerawork is by Ali Asid. He uses long shots well to locate characters in the specific locations, such as when Emma and Jamie arrive separately at the conference they are attending. Apart from the frustration of feeling that I never know geographically where I am, the camerawork does help the narrative present meaning visually. That’s just as well when the dialogue is so fractured.
Marriage will be available for 11 months on BBC iPlayer in the UK. The serial is being sold globally through All3 Media International. Two other things about the four episodes you should know: on the positive side, there are no annoying ‘what happened last time’/’what will happen next time’ sequences at the beginning and end of each episode. But, not so good, the sound levels and clarity are dreadful. I watched most of a couple of episodes with the subtitles on.