Film Review: Kramer vs. Kramer – 8.5/10

‘Joanna is a very unhappy woman and it took a lot of courage to walk out this door…’

I first watched Kramer vs. Kramer as a 12-year-old because it happened to be on TV one night when I was bored. Despite the fact it had no Transformers or Terminators in it, I soon found myself transfixed. It was one of the first times in my young life that I had considered the possibility that my parents could get divorced. It was a startling revelation and one that gave me sleepless nights for weeks afterwards. Returning to it now as a man on the verge of celebrating his ninth wedding anniversary is a very different experience indeed…

The film opens with Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep) walking out on her husband Ted (Dustin Hoffman) citing a lack of spark in their relationship. The fact that Ted hardly hears Joanna’s declaration that their marriage is over as he is so focused on his job as an advertising exec is perhaps a clue as to why things have fallen apart. What’s more shocking is that Joanna also walks out on her young son Billy (Justin Henry).

Despite being released in 1979, Kramer vs. Kramer feels much more modern in its sensibilities. While the film is slightly more sympathetic to Ted’s struggles as a single father, writer-director Robert Benton (adapting Avery Corman’s novel) gives a fair hearing to Joanna as well, painting a picture in which both parties are somewhat at fault. It’s a heartbreaking situation with no clear fair outcome. It’s a scenario that has been playing out in divorce courts the world over for hundreds of years and it’ll never stop and it’ll never get easier. Marriage is the most beautiful thing in the world but it’s also one of the most difficult to cultivate and maintain. Kramer vs. Kramer acknowledges that and allows two of America’s most iconic performers the space and scope to build a pair of characters who feel utterly real. Both actors won Oscars for their performances (Justin Henry and Jane Alexander were also nominated) and their authenticity and vulnerability were a precursor to Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver’s acclaimed portrayals of divorce in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story.

Kramer vs. Kramer is timeless because everyone knows how it feels to be in a struggling relationship – a captivating and prescient family drama culminating in one of cinema’s finest courtroom scenes.

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