Marriage review: Sean Bean and Nicola Walker star in a gentle, understated study of a decades-long partnership

Sean Bean and Nicola Walker star in Marriage, a BBC One drama as much about what people struggle to articulate as it is what they can say with ease

Marriage – the BBC One series, that is – is about communication. Or, indeed, a lack thereof: it’s as much about what people struggle to articulate as it is what they can say with ease, fascinated in equal measure by the silences that stretch between partners of decades and spontaneous conversations between strangers.

At the heart of the series are Ian (Sean Bean) and Emma (Nicola Walker). Approaching their 27th wedding anniversary, both are caught in transitional phases – Ian dealing with the dual blows of his mother’s death and being made unexpectedly redundant, Emma taking on new responsibilities at work. Beyond that, though, the series is relatively loosely structured, not quite a series of vignettes but not quite precisely plotted either – Marriage is quite gently weaved together, moving from visits to Emma’s father Gerry (James Bolam) to trips to see their daughter Jessica (Chantelle Alle) with a light touch.

The relationship itself is written with real weight and texture, dotted with neat little observations about each character: he swears much less regularly than she does, she’ll absent-mindedly turn out the light while he’s still in the room. They have friendly little arguments in the supermarket about which brand of chicken tastes chickenier (“We’re becoming like those terrible old people”), and it lends Marriage a real kind of lived-in quality. You get the sense of habits formed over decades, within and alongside one another – they don’t come across as characters invented in isolation, but as though they’re people that have grown and influenced each other across almost three decades.

Stefan Golaszewski (writer and director of Marriage, and creator of both Mum and Him & Her) has quite a deft handle on the relationship, even beyond those little details; there’s always a sense that the silences between Ian and Emma are pregnant with meaning, both the comfortable and the awkward ones. After an unsuccessful job interview, Ian comes home, pottering about the house until Emma gets back, and lying to her about it when she does – it’s only a while later that he admits the interviewer spent their whole meeting on the phone, and they hug in a reassuring silence. That kind of unspoken communication and implied meaning is a real strength of Marriage, with Golaszewski managing to say a lot even as he’s writing a little.

Sean Bean as Ian and Nicola Walker as Emma. They’re stood in their kitchen, facing one another in a low yellow light; Ian is turned away from the viewer and Emma has a hand on Ian’s abdomen (Credit: BBC / The Forge / Rory Mulvey)

Even so, though, it’s an actor’s show first and foremost. Marriage is quite a quiet piece, generally, never really prone to moments of Big Drama (so to speak), and Bean and Walker key into that volume immediately – neither is a stranger to Big Performances, but they’re both small in exactly the right way here, accentuating Golaszewski’s script and always in total harmony with one another. Even when Ian and Emma aren’t quite on the same page, Bean and Walker always are; Marriage is, for obvious reasons, the sort of show that would live or die on the strength of its casting, but Bean and Walker pitch their performances perfectly.

In some ways, it feels like a particularly strong showcase for Walker, given that the surface similarities between Marriage and The Split – both about long-term relationships, both fascinated by their shape and impact – highlight how vastly different the choices she makes as a performer are in each. She speaks differently, holds herself differently, expresses pain and joy differently, and comparing the Hannah Stern/Emma Doyle roles points to exactly what it means to have range as an actor. Bean of course is remarkable too, an affable man who doesn’t understand how to explain how lonely he’s become, desperate to hang onto fleeting connections with service workers who are really only being polite.

It’s worth drawing particular attention to Chantelle Alle too, if only because a relative unknown starring alongside actors like Bean and Walker would perhaps be overshadowed otherwise – she too is fantastic, though, both individually and the scenes she shares with Bean and Walker. Indeed, actually, Alle’s performance is crucial, with Jessica both a mirror of and a contrast to her parents; Jessica’s gradual re-examination of her father and reconceptualisation of her relationship with him is one of Marriage’s most affecting throughlines, and in the end central to its big ideas about communication.

What’s striking about Marriage, though, is how much space it holds for its supporting characters – how much time it affords to trying to communicate, to the audience if no one else, a world beyond Ian and Emma. When Ian goes to his job interview, the scene doesn’t start with him – it begins earlier, with his interviewer in a minor car crash, justifiably annoyed and understandably more interested in her phone than Ian’s CV. Marriage is a series about communication, and part of that means capturing moments of vulnerability when no one is looking (few other shows get as much pathos out of resetting the wi-fi), but it tries to capture the moments that no one is there even to see. The whole series is rendered with such empathy, and there’s something quite special about that.

Marriage begins on BBC One at 9pm on Sunday 14 August, with the second episode following at the same on Monday 15 and all four episodes available as a boxset on iPlayer immediately. I’ve seen all four episodes of Marriage before writing this review; you can read more of our TV reviews here.