Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, Margot and her son Claude decide to visit her sister Pauline after she announces that she is marrying less-than-impressive Malcolm. In short order, the storm the sisters create leaves behind a mess of thrashed relationships and exposed family secrets. Starring: Nicole Kidman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jack Black, Zane Pais, Flora Cross, Ciarán Hinds, Halley Feiffer and John Turturro.
Baumbach has become a household indie name over the last fifteen years, with The Squid and the Whale arguably kicking things off, and Margot at the Wedding being the film that followed to help build that bridge. Taking any example of his work and you can see that he’s a master of close, personal and intense drama, and this particular one is no exception, in fact it may be one of his best to date. It doesn’t take long before you get an idea of what the relationship between Margot (Kidman) and Pauline (Leigh) is, it’s certainly not all love and friendship, it’s incredibly complex and full of competition, resentment, falsities and passive aggression.
It’s hard to imagine that there could have been better actors for the roles of Margot and Pauline than Kidman and Leigh, their performances are impeccable, they’re unlikable and manipulative but at the same time, it’s hard to look away. Kidman especially gives her best here, it’s hard to put into words just how manipulative her character is and the genuine mental health issues that she’s ignoring but she captures it unbelievably well. Pairing her with Leigh was a brilliant idea, she’s an actress that so easily brings an unusual, intriguing presence, she plays like the more balanced of the two but they both have so much to say and an array of emotions to deal with that it’s hard to tell if either character has a strong handle on things. The supporting cast is similarly well cast, Black’s portrayal of Malcolm adds a touch of comedy to lighten up the dense struggles of the sisters. Pais provides an outsider perspective to the sisterhood, Claude may be his mother’s son but he clearly has a limited view of who she is, and begins to learn a lot more once he’s exposed to her behaviour around her sister.
Those brilliant performances are enabled by a biting, sharp and intense script, the writing is pitch perfect and as it gracefully makes its way through the shark infested waters that is this sisterhood, it straddles the line of severe and too far, but never crossing the boundary. It’s a story that’s full of chaos, some of it quiet and a lot of it uncomfortable, it frequently wanders into territory that becomes slightly difficult to watch but never in a way that makes you want to walk away from it. There’s a strangely fast paced feel to the story, for the majority it’s full of conversation but it’s also littered with small aggressions that push it continually forward, giving that feeling of swift movement from scene to scene. The direction maximises that intensity, the back and forth to see each side of the story and how the perspectives of each sister varies so wildly. The style keeps the intimacy intact, giving you the view of an additional member of the family except with a more objective eye.
It’s a surprise that more people don’t talk about Margot at the Wedding, if you’ve seen Marriage Story, it’s easy to see how Baumbach’s work with this film laid the groundwork for its successor. It’s intense, complex and barely takes a breath, there’s a huge amount of biting dialogue but there’s simultaneously a lot going on under the surface that makes it so compelling. Kidman may be better known for her larger roles but dramas such as this that she can dig her teeth into are where she really shines, it’s a career highlight performance that’s clearly underrated, her portrayal of Margot is unbelievably twisted and manipulative without ever having to say much, it’s bewitching yet detestable. Leigh playing opposite her gives as good as she gets, providing the perfect sparring partner. You won’t be able to look away and you’ll likely find yourself not wishing the best for a lot of these characters but it’s more than worth it.