There’s a moment early on in Marriage when Nicola Walker’s Emma brings Sean Bean’s Ian a meal with chips bought in an airport cafe. He wanted a jacket potato but as there weren’t any visibly being served, she admits that she didn’t ask for one. Ian pauses and just for a split second annoyance flashes across his face. He then smiles and moves on with the conversation.
In any other series you might assume this was a quirk, an acting choice which adds to the character but not the story. But in Marriage, the characters are the story. Sure enough this potato/chips row spirals off in a funny and utterly relatable bickering sequence as the couple board the plane, delightfully setting the tone for all four episodes.
However, it’s the next moment which truly sets up what Marriage is all about. Their spat comes to an end as the plane takes off and a nervous Ian reaches across the aisle for his wife’s hand. He doesn’t need to reach far – her hand is already there waiting, and he grasps on to it for reassurance. It’s understated, endearing and in a surprising way, utterly romantic.
From there Marriage takes us on a tour of Ian and Emma’s lives, set over a period of days around their wedding anniversary. Ian has found himself recently jobless and potters about at home, going to the occasional interview and spending time at the gym. Meanwhile Emma attends a work conference and grapples with her sleazy, patronizing younger boss (Henry Lloyd-Hughes).
These are the moments Marriage revolves around, but the series is never so much about what’s happening but who it’s happening to and how it affects them. In less-accomplished hands that could be a recipe for disaster, an aimless act of self-indulgence playing out over four deathly-dull hours.
Thankfully, the series has writer Stefan Golaszewski behind it, a maestro at this sort of intricate character work from his previous series’ Mum and Him & Her. Meanwhile, in front of the camera, you couldn’t ask for a better pair than Bean and Walker.
Both actors are renowned for a reason and here they have never been better, with a chemistry that is completely believable. At no point do you question their relationship or the love they have for one another, despite the little things that get in the way – their frustrations feel real, as do their losses and their hopes.
Bean’s Ian is mild, unassuming, occasionally neurotic but entirely good natured. Internally he’s dealing with two losses – that of his late mother and of his job, which we recognize brought structure to his days. To combat the loneliness he tries to make small-talk with the attendant behind the desk at the gym, but she finds him off-putting and questions his intentions.
Meanwhile Emma deals with greater responsibility, both towards her own work ambitions and also to her family, whether that’s Ian, their adopted daughter Jessica (Chantelle Alle) or her father (James Bolam).
Both feel the weight of the world but in entirely different ways – Emma is more assertive, while Ian attempts to constantly put on a brave face. In spite of, or perhaps because of, a shared trauma in their past, neither wants to admit their fears to one another without a little push, and once that push is made it can be positive and affirming, while at other times it leads to a heartbreaking emotional reckoning.
It’s the small moments between the couple which breathe life into the series – the almost whispering way Ian talks to Emma in their moments alone, the supportive embraces. They’re a tactile couple, as we’re reminded that this is far more than just a lifelong friendship, or even a partnership.
It’s right that Marriage should prioritize its central pair but that doesn’t mean the supporting characters are thinly drawn. Jessica gets her own relationship story to contend with, while even those characters who could be deemed ‘villains’ are given their due. There’s no excusing the bad behaviour, only an attempt to explain it. The whole series comes from a place of intense empathy, so it’s only right that that extends beyond our central duo.
It’s important to say that the series isn’t gooey, sentimental or moralising, it’s just sincere. This is slice of life drama at its finest, with characters that are so richly drawn, comedy that is so relatable and heartache that is so piercing that you come away feeling as though you have lived an entire, rounded life with these characters.
It’s naturalistic throughout, meaning while there’s one musical refrain which plays at the start and end of each episode, otherwise it’s a sparse soundscape. Visually the series also keeps things to the point. There’s no thrills or trickery – it trusts in the performances enough to let them breathe.
The biggest testament to the series is that across its entire four hour runtime, it’s never, ever boring. Every look is like gaining a further piece of the puzzle as we work out what makes these people tick. Every stammer or awkward joke helps to illuminate something we didn’t know about the way these two interact with one another.
When you boil it down to its component parts, Marriage is just an intoxicatingly engaging love story, redefining TV romance for introverts and realists. There’s no grand declarations of love and the series is all the better for it. If you believe in the old adage that it’s better to show, not tell, then Marriage comes out with flying colours.
Marriage will air on BBC One and BBC iPlayer on Sunday 14th August at 9pm. Check out more of our Drama coverage or visit our TV Guide to see what’s on tonight.
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