Scenes from a Marriage is pretty much a one-man show. Hagai Levy has created, co-written (with Amy Herzoc) and directed the five-episode series, which is out on Disney+ Hotstar. Levy’s post-pandemic interpretation of Ingmar Bergman’s television mini-series of the same name from 1973 employs a no-holds-barred, anatomical peeling of the marriage of Mira (Jessica Chastain) and Jonathan (Oscar Issac).

It is set largely in one house. Levy makes the light, the sounds, the clutter, the front yard and the scattered homeliness of the setting another character besides the couple who has lived here for years with their five-year-old daughter Ava (Sophia Kopera). Levy upends the gender specifics of Bergman’s story by making Mira, an ambitious and successful careerist at the tech behemoth Verizon, leave Jonathan, a philosophy professor, a former orthodox Jew and primary homemaker of this family.

The set-up is perfect for a moral thriller. But Levy has no palpable agenda in building up to a denouement. Instead, he pulls us straight into the pit where guilt, pain, bafflement, jealousy and tenderness play out. It’s simply unrealistic to expect when one of these emotions set in, and when that emotion make way for another without seeming like it’s jarring. The excellent acting by both actors, possibly chiselled over rehearsals and improvisations, ensure the flow is seamless.

Will Mira find lasting passion in her new relationship with a younger man? Will Jonathan marry again, or will he be able to break out of the strict moral codes from his former life growing up in an orthodox Jewish family from which he constantly struggles to free himself?

It is a relentlessly intimate series. With Issac and Chastain, close friends for many years and co-stars in another family film, A Most Violent Year (2014), Scenes from a Marriage seems blessed with smooth chemistry between the actors. It’s obvious from the beginning that Mira and Jonathan can’t completely break away from each; to face each other’s wrath one moment and doting and sexual passion the next is their only way of life, no matter who they hook up with even after a legal separation.

Scenes from a Marriage (2021).

It would be hard for couples to sit together and watch the painfully spot-lit journey of Mira and Jonathan, especially now that we seem to have moved on from the lockdown claustrophobia of the pandemic. That’s possible also because Levy begins each episode with a home video style movement with the actors as they prepare for their scenes.

In the first episode, we see Chastain talk to a masked crew member about the time she would want her lunch as she walks into the set and take her position for a scene. Levy’s intention could be to remind us that this is indeed not reality, or that this is a universal story of any couple, but the tactic doesn’t necessarily act in favour of his gorgeously-lit, meticulously shot episodes.

At times, especially as the series begins, it is easy to be distracted and take the emotions acted out seriously because you are reminded in the most obvious way that this is indeed acting. But the performances by Chastain and Issac are so immersive that it doesn’t take long to get wrapped up in their doting and disquiet.

Issac has an intensity and magnetism, a few notches higher than his Star Wars roles and even more than one of his finest performances as a folk singer in Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). Although Mira doesn’t have a definitive back story, Chastain convincingly channels her vulnerability, volubility and mercurial nature. Levy’s reimagining of the original story and making the woman leave the marriage and her child for the sake of newness and passion makes it doubly interesting for Chastain.

The streaming space is full of stories about the pitfalls of marriage and new standards of fidelity and love in long-term relationships. Nothing is novel about marriage or love. But rarely does a series or film come out in which the emotions are so true and so credible.

Scenes from a Marriage rests entirely on emotional truth, and as such is a demanding but intensely satisfying watch. The ambivalence and neutrality with which we see Mira and Jonathon is the ambivalence and neutrality we have for our closest friends – and perhaps for ourselves, when we think about our most identity-shaping, close relationships.

Scenes from a Marriage (2021).