In this four-part series starring a wonderfully jaded Nicola Walker and Sean Bean, writer-director Stefan Golaszewski steps away from the comedic arena where he made his name. Marriage is a meticulously understated study of the struggles and small moments of joy in the lives of a middle-aged couple, married for 27 years and mostly living lives of quiet desperation in an unnamed regional town.
Like Golaszewski’s sitcoms Mum and Him and Her, Marriage focuses on the everyday and the simple. The clothes, the couple’s home, even the color palette of the sky is sad. As in Mom, the words left unsaid carry more weight than what is said out loud. Golaszewski, 42, has great empathy for characters one, two or three decades older.
It begins in a Spanish airport lounge, with an angry row over a jacket potato that is clearly about something else entirely. Their vacation has been a much-needed break for Emma (Walker) and Ian (Bean), and we eventually find out why. Ian recently lost his mother and his job. Emma has a difficult relationship with her truculent father, Gerry (James Bolam), who may be suffering from some form of dementia.
Her ambivalent attitude towards her job in a law firm is further complicated by the suggestion of a less-than-professional relationship with her boss Jamie (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), either in the past or in the future. Halfway through the first episode, Golaszewski drops a silent bombshell, showing the couple crying at the grave of their infant son. Shortly after, we meet their daughter Jessica (Chantelle Alle), who is black and presumably adopted.
Over an excruciatingly awkward dinner, Jess, an aspiring singer, introduces Ian and Emma to her new producer boyfriend Adam, who seems worryingly controlling. Earlier, Gerry had suggested that Ian “controls” Emma, even though it seems she is the more assertive and confident in their partnership.
The tension waxes and wanes: one of the most pleasurable aspects of the marriage is the depiction of love surviving years of worn underwear, conversations shouted from separate rooms and arguments about the relative cost of cashews and peanuts. Golaszewski also gives us glimpses into the wider lives of secondary characters: the gym receptionist who is about to embark on her own married life and is being cheated on by Ian (he may have a difficult crush or may just be seeking human connection); the female executive who is involved in a car prank before giving Ian a hostile job interview.
Life’s strain seems closer to the surface in Walker’s Emma, a stoic anticipation of disappointment etched on her face. Bean, meanwhile, subtly hints at the way the loss has diminished Ian. He always fumbles with making tea, blurts platitudes, forgets to unlock the car for Emma.
It is a pleasure to see two such unflappable actors connected on a minimalist narrative. Bolam is as good as ever, and Alle adds a dose of brightness. This is a nuanced and delicately calibrated piece of work, but occasionally, I admit, I longed for the bittersweet wit of Golaszewski’s mum.
The first episode of Marriage airs on BBC One on Sunday 14 August at 9pm, with all episodes available on iPlayer soon after