Directed by: Ned Benson.
Written by: Ned Benson.
Starring: James McAvoy (Conor Ludlow), Jessica Chastain (Eleanor Rigby), Nina Arianda (Alexis), Viola Davis (Professor Friedman), Bill Hader (Stuart), Ciarán Hinds (Spencer Ludlow), Isabelle Huppert (Mary Rigby), William Hurt (Julian Rigby), Jess Weixler (Katy Rigby).
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them is a compromised vision of what may be a far better film (or films). When it debuted at TIFF in 2013, it did so as two different films – The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her – that could be watched in either order and it didn’t matter. The two films apparently told the same story, with scenes repeated from a different perspective, which gave them different meanings – one from his point of the view, and one from hers. So, as star Jessica Chastain explained, in the film Her, she was playing the real character, and in the film Him, she was playing his perception of that character – which isn’t the same thing (and the opposite is true). Harvey Weinstein bought the pair of films, but wanted to turn them into one film – the one I saw, Them – which cuts scenes from both movies into a single film. This was obviously done for commercial reasons – it’s a tough sell to try and get audiences to sit through the same film twice, back-to-back, from different perspectives – especially when the resulting double bill runs well over three hours. I am disappointed I wasn’t able to see the separate films – which is how writer and director Ned Benson intended (although, to be fair, he did the edit on Them as well). It’s now available on iTunes – but while I can rent the combined version, I can only watch Him and Her if I buy it – and I’m too cheap to do that. What I saw in Them is a mixed bag – but interesting enough that at some point, I still hope to see the other two films.
The film opens with a memory – a married couple, Conor (James McAvoy) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) are at a fancy restaurant – and then do and a dine and dash. The couple seem in love and happy with each other – which is why it’s odd that we soon see Eleanor jump off a bridge in a suicide attempt. In the aftermath of that, she moves back home with her parents (William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert), and her single mother sister (Jess Wexler). She decides to go back to school, and bonds with her professor (Viola Davis). Meanwhile, Conor is left trying to figure what the hell happened – he doesn’t know where Eleanor is, or the details of what happened. He, as well, moves in with his father (Ciaran Hinds) – as he tries to keep his struggling restaurant open.
Knowing how the film was conceived, and originally shot and screened, is helpful when watching this combined version – which I have to say is kind of a mess. The scenes where the couple are apart work the best – it’s clear whose perspective we are seeing, and how that effects what we see. But the scenes where the couple are together don’t work nearly as well – in part because we cannot be sure whose perspective we are seeing. Without knowing how the film was originally conceived, audiences may well assume that like most films, what they are watching is the “objective truth” of these characters – but that isn’t what is on screen. It’s really about how these characters view themselves – and those around them. That works when they are separate – not so much when they are together, and that opens a void that this version of the film cannot fill.
The film is never less than interesting however – and benefits greatly from Jessica Chastain’s top notch performance. In her scenes, she is aided greatly by subtle work by William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert – who at first seem like typical, clueless, aging hippie parents, but gradually take on more dimensions. She is also aided by a great performance by Viola Davis – who is so good, you can forgive the movie the mistake of including her character at all, since she doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the movie. But this is mainly Chastain’s show – and she is excellent as a grieving woman – a woman in her 30s whose world has crashed down around her and she is trying, slowly, to rebuild. McAvoy is also quite good – but his story isn’t as interesting, and neither are those around him, so he suffers somewhat.
My biggest complaint about the movie is how it withholds information from the audience simply for the sake of withholding it – so it can reveal it at the most dramatic time possible. Everyone in the movie knows the secret – and they seem to be deliberately dancing around it, and only because Benson doesn’t want the audience to know yet. It can be frustrating.
But I admired The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them for everything it tried to do, even if it comes up short. If nothing else, it makes me want to see the two separate films, back to back, because I have a feeling it would better that way. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t – but I want to find out for myself.