Marriage review: a gentle study of a decades-long relationship

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Sean Bean and Nicola Walker play as much about what people find difficult to articulate as what they find easy to say in ‘Marriage’, a BBC One drama

Marriage – hence the BBC One series – is about communication. Or indeed a lack of it: it’s about both what people can articulate and say with ease, equally fascinated by the silences that stretch between decades-long partners and spontaneous conversations between strangers.

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The series centers on Ian (Sean Bean) and Emma (Nicola Walker). As their 27th wedding anniversary approaches, they are both caught in transitions – Ian coping with the twin twists of his mother’s death and being unexpectedly fired, Emma taking on new responsibilities at work. Beyond that, though, the series is relatively loosely structured, not exactly a vignette series, but not exactly plotted either – the marriage is fairly gently woven, from visits to Emma’s father Gerry (James Bolam) to trips to see their daughter Jessica (Chantelle Alle ) with a light note.

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The relationship itself is written with real weight and texture, peppered with nice little observations about each character: he swears far less regularly than she does, she will absentmindedly turn off the lights while he’s still in the room. At the grocery store, they amicably argue about which brand of chicken tastes chicken (“We’re getting like those awful old men”), and that brings a real residential quality to the marriage. You can feel habits that have grown over decades, in and next to each other – they don’t seem like isolated characters that have been invented, but as people who have grown over almost three decades and have influenced each other.

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Stefan Golaszewski (writer and director of Marriage and creator of Mum and Him & Her) handles the relationship quite adeptly, even beyond these small details; there’s always a sense that the silence between Ian and Emma carries meaning, both the pleasant and the awkward. After an unsuccessful job interview, Ian comes home, rummages around the house until Emma comes back, and lies to her when she does – only a while later he admits the interviewer spent their entire meeting on the phone and they hug in soothing silence. This kind of unspoken communication and implied meaning is a real strength of Marriage, with Golaszewski managing to say a lot even when writing a little.

Sean Bean as Ian and Nicola Walker as Emma. They stand in their kitchen facing each other in a faint yellow light; Ian is turned away from the viewer and Emma has a hand on Ian’s stomach (Credit: BBC / The Forge / Rory Mulvey)

Still, it’s an actor show first and foremost. Marriage is generally a pretty quiet play, never really prone to moments of big drama (sort of), and Bean and Walker jump right into this bond — both are no strangers to big gigs, but they’re both small in just that here, accentuating Golaszewski’s writing and always in complete harmony with each other. Even if Ian and Emma don’t quite see eye to eye, Bean and Walker always do; Marriage is the kind of show that would live or die based on its cast, for obvious reasons, but Bean and Walker pull off their performances perfectly.

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In a way, it feels like a particularly powerful showcase for Walker, as the superficial similarities between Marriage and The Split – both pertaining to long-term relationships, both intrigued by their form and impact – show just how different the choices they make are as a woman meets performers are in everyone. She speaks differently, holds herself differently, expresses pain and joy differently, and comparing the Hannah Stern/Emma Doyle roles shows exactly what it means to have range as an actress. Bean is also notable, of course, an affable man who doesn’t know how to explain how lonely he’s become, desperate to hold on to fleeting connections with service workers who are really just polite.

Chantelle Alle also deserves special attention, if only because a relatively unknown lead role might otherwise be eclipsed alongside the likes of Bean and Walker – but she’s fantastic, too, both individually and in the scenes she’s starring with Bean and Walker shares. In fact, appearance is everything, with Jessica being both a mirror and a contrast to her parents; Jessica’s gradual examination of her father and reconceptualization of her relationship with him is one of the most touching lines of marriage and ultimately central to her big ideas about communication.

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What is striking about Marriage, however, is how much space it gives to its supporting characters – how much time it takes to try to convey to the audience, if no one else, a world beyond Ian and Emma. When Ian goes to his interview, the scene doesn’t start with him – it starts earlier, with his interviewer in a minor car accident, justifiably upset and understandably more interested in her phone than Ian’s resume. Marriage is a series about communication, and part of that is capturing moments of vulnerability when nobody’s looking (few other shows bring so much pathos out of Wi-Fi resets), but it tries to capture the moments when nobody’s there can even be seen. The whole series is rendered with so much sensitivity and there’s something very special about it.

Marriage starts on BBC One at 21:00 on Sunday 14th August, followed by the second episode at the same time on Monday 15th August and all four episodes are available immediately as a box set on iPlayer. I watched all four episodes of Marriage before writing this review; You can read more of ours TV reviews here.

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