State of the Union Review: Fast-Talking Through a Marriage on the Brink

State of the Union (Sundance)

Chris O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike exchange hyper-articulate, rapid-fire dialogue in an intimate, occasionally dry series from Stephen Frears.


Every week for ten sessions, Louise (Rosamund Pike) and Tom (Chris O’Dowd) meet at a pub for a drink before making their way across the street to meet with their marriage therapist in State of the Union. Ostensibly done to “plan” for what they want to talk about in therapy—as a therapist, allow me to assure you this not a thing any couple needs to do before a session—it reveals to the viewers in dribs, drabs, false starts, and quickly reveals the state of the couple’s marriage, how it got there, and how much deeper it goes than either of them either knew or were prepared to speak to just yet.

The shortness of each episode turns out to be both a blessing and a curse. At ten minutes, one can hardly get sick of the couple. On the other hand, the dialogue from screenwriter and novelist Nick Hornby bursts forth so rapidly that it can take a viewer a bit to settle into it. Then, like that, the episode is over and you risk losing the thread once again. In other words, even though State of the Union offers bite-sized vignettes, one would do best to treat it as a 100 or so minute film.

Even if a viewer does opt for the 100-minute approach though, it is easy to see how many might feel the whole thing is a bit off-putting. With Stephen Frears directing, the show looks good but his energy has clearly gone into the directing of his players. Union offers little by way of visual flair from the generally reliably interesting eye of Frears. Instead, he opts for a composition that focuses on Pike and O’Dowd’s faces and the expressions that creep, sit, and flash across them. The intimacy and simplicity of it can prove intensely discomfiting, a bit stale, entrancing or all three depending on your own preferences.

For me, Union is a captivating piece of work. As a long devotee of Hornby, seeing him adding another capture in his increasingly mature chronicles of what it means to be an adult in this day and age is catnip. Moreover, as someone who has always loved small-scale dramas that rely on crackerjack dialogue and versatile performers, this project sometimes feels a bit like it was custom-made for me.

It’s perspective on marriage feels unique enough to be worth putting on the screen but honest enough to still be real. Chances are anyone who has been in a long-term relationship or remains in one will catch themselves or their partners in aspects of either or both characters.

The intimacy and simplicity of it can prove intensely discomfiting, a bit stale, entrancing or all three depending on your own preferences.

If you, perhaps, do not share my love of chamber pieces, this might all sound like homework. However, Hornby still retains his gift for humor, especially of the bit dark closely observed reality. While rarely laugh out loud funny, Union has enough smiles and bounce to make the show watchable and to keep you invested in the possibility that these two can save their marriage.

However, this will not be a universal pleaser. It is too particular, too prickly. Fans of Hornby and Frears will likely connect with it quickly as will fans of shows like In Treatment. Still, it will likely leave many on the outside, looking in, either knocked off by the dialogue or struggling to connect with two people who seem so distant from their own rapidly crumbling union.

Nonetheless, I urge a look. A twenty-minute or two-episode investment should be plenty to let you know if it is your cup of tea, no pun intended. And if it is, the rest of the series will go down smooth like Tom’s pint or Louise’s glass of dry white. If not? Well, walking away will be easy then, won’t it?

State of the Union (Sundance) Trailer
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Tim Stevens

Tim Stevens is a freelance writer and therapist from the Nutmeg State, hailing from the home of the World’s Smallest Natural Waterfall. In addition to The Spool, you can read his stuff in CC Magazine, Marvel.com, ComicsVerse, and The New Paris Press. His work has been quoted in Psychology Today, The Atlantic, and MSN Ireland. And yes, he is listing all this to try and impress you.

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