Overflowing with emotion and drama, ‘Kramer vs. Kramer’ stands the test of time in regards to most elements. The only dated thing is the look of New York in the 1970’s and divorce being so shocking, everything else holds true, that strong sense of broken families, relationships and love are done so damn well in this film.
Ad executive Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) comes home one night to get told by his wife Joanna (Meryl Streep) that she’s moving out and divorcing him. He’s therefore left to juggle work and raise their son Billy (Justin Henry) by himself as time ticks away to the court date for the boy.
I’ll begin with the storytelling of this drama. Based on a story by Avery Corman, this screenplay by Robert Benton ticks all the boxes for a heavyweight subject such as this. The idea of divorce could have been so wishy-washy or done like a melodrama but within this film it punches hard and you end up seeing how it affects all parties, which is needed I believe. You could come away seeing Streep as the villainess but even she gets a moment where you feel for her broken housewife routine and you understand why she felt she had to get out. Benton’s writing is delicately balanced with humour also, assisting the more serious moments, such as Billy’s playground tumble or the Kramer’s restaurant meeting.
Now I’ve mentioned it, I must say that scene is glorious. The two Kramer’s meeting up begins in a nice setting, has a gentle start and then wham, it turns as Joanna reveals her intentions and Ted responds to that news. The aggression yet passion of him is felt yet it doesn’t totally overshadow Joanna’s calmer front as she sticks to her guns. Also that glass smash was such a great moment, unexpected for us and as it turns out Meryl Streep too. Dustin Hoffman apparently only told the camera crew so they could capture it…now that’s how to make a scene feel real!
The lovely book-ended suggestion of this film gives it another bonus. We see Joanna getting in the lift as she’s just told she’s leaving her husband and then at the end we see her doing the same thing as she goes to see her son. It’s a somewhat powerful mirroring of action that helps the overall narrative of this movie. Also with the breakfast routine which at first sight is a bundle of chaos and broken eggs, but by the ending moments Ted and Billy have this morning sequence down to a silent art. These are two moments that stood out, not for being massively key in the story but adding the right tone to it.
Robert Benton writes and also directs this late 70’s film and he does so with another understanding touch. It’s thoughtfully crafted, each scene progresses with Ted’s growing as a father and a person generally. Soon he puts behind work in his need to look after Billy, he realises the sacrifices made by Joanna. Benton puts these series of moments together as if we are watching a true family problem unfold and he directs the third act court scenes fantastically. It becomes more touching in this stage as we hear both sides of the argument, literally as they take their places in the witness stand.
Dustin Hoffman gives Ted some depth as he goes on his journey and you do root for him as a character. The scenes where he spends more time with Billy are really great, for example that near uncut tracking run as he carries Billy to the emergency unit. Hoffman gifts Ted charisma, emotion and a hint of arrogance too. Meryl Streep in one of her earlier roles shows the world the powers she will be in this movie. At first she plays Joanna as weak and uninteresting but her story also changes as we come to see more of her, the stony face as she watches on from a distance of the passionate weeping as she spills her backstory in the courthouse. Justin Henry is a force to be reckoned with, honestly there’s not one moment where he’s the annoying kid actor, he plays his scenes opposite Hoffman with such ease that you love watching what he’ll do next, for example the ice-cream scene is done so well. Henry deserved the Oscar nomination and perhaps more in my books.
Kramer vs. Kramer is rich in story and powerful in its performances. Also may I add that the ending is just brilliant, a perfect way to close the plot and leave us thinking about such an honest and dramatic movie about personal conflict.