TIFF Review: 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him & Her' Starring Jessica Chastain +James McAvoy
Filmmaker Ned Benson has been working on his “Eleanor Rigby” project for over 7 years. Having met Jessica Chastain 10 years ago, during a film festival where she saw and fell in love with one of his shorts, the project became something of a passion for the two of them. Chastain’s best friend Jess Weixler became involved and the idea of telling a story about a seismic incident that can topple a strong relationship between a man and a woman began to develop. Chastain has even mentioned that Benson would visit her on set of Terrence Malick’s "Tree of Life" to write pages of his story and get inspired by Malick’s method (there’s an unmistakable Malickian influence in the tone of “Eleanor Rigby”). What began as a story about a woman, written specifically for Chastain, started to grow into something much deeper and bigger, until Benson realized the potential of a pretty ingenious concept: telling the same story from two different perspectives: "Him" and "Her." Benson then took the idea further, screening both versions back-to-back at TIFF with the “Him” section showing first, although the ultimate intention is that the films be released separately and present audiences with a choice as to which one they watch first.
One of many strengths of Benson’s "Eleanor Rigby" is precisely that kind of exploration because it's built into the conceptual framework of the film and the structure alone allows the film(s) to become something much more than just another relationship film. The story revolves around a couple who have been together for 7 years; Connor (James McAvoy) is a 33-year-old bar-owner and Eleanor (Chastain) is struggling with unhappiness and needs a change. One day, she decides to start from scratch and disappear from Connor’s life, asking him not to contact her nor to try and find her. In “Him”, we follow Connor as he talks to his friends (including his chef played by the priceless Bill Hader) and his father (Ciaran Hinds, in a very nuanced and endearing performance), trying to understand the situation and dealing with such an impactful change in his life. In “Her” we see some of the same events that transpired in “Him” but from Eleanor’s vantage point, as she attempts to make some kind of meaningful change in her life with the help of her family (William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert are her parents and Weixler is her sister) and her teacher (Viola Davis, in easily her best role since "The Help"). How do you move on? Where does “you” stop and “us” begin? Can a person truly change? These questions and more percolate in Benson’s epic story of love, life, loss, happiness and family.
Perhaps it sounds all a bit too Hallmark (to use one of the characters phrases), and in the hands of some of other less talented artists these kinds of stories can nosedive straight into the territory of some bad made-for-cable Lifetime movie. But Benson’s multi-layered, organically paced, delicate and quite often hilarious screenplay holds it all together with wit and brio. He was also fortunate enough to land a perfect ensemble cast. McAvoy has never been better; obviously comfortable with the role and completely understanding of Connor’s confusion, he looks relaxed and is inherently likable from the very first frame. Chastain’s Eleanor is cold and distant compared to Connor, but as the delicate actress that she is, she gives all of herself and delivers another highly nuanced, human character. The rest of the supporting cast, including the perfect fathers Hinds and Hurt, the wine-drinking Huppert going through a “quiet crisis” and the cynically hilarious and gentle soul that is Viola Davis all just add to the overall strength of the film.
We’ve tip-toed carefully around the pivotal incident which is at the core of the film, because it’s something that is best discovered within the journey, layer by layer. What makes “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” truly stand apart from all the other films of its kind, be they French art-house award winners, your mother’s favorite Meg Ryan movie or the myriad of romantic comedies out there, is the emotional depth that is allowed to be dug by the film’s premise and length, executed almost perfectly. There are many meandering moments where you might find yourself thinking, “where is this going” and you will be forming opinions about these people which undoubtedly affect your judgment of the movie, but that’s all part of the bigger picture Benson is painting. Like an epic sonnet, with beautiful accompanying music and songs, “Eleanor Rigby” deals with memory, perception and the emotional toll a relationship can have on an individual as much as it deals with the more grandiose themes of love and loss. It’s a finely tuned and tenderly detailed love story of two people told on a cosmic scale, and it’s one of the year’s greatest relationship films. [A-]
“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her” comes from first-time director Ned Benson, is more than three hours long and is in Toronto looking for distribution. It stars Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy as a married couple trying to cope in the aftermath of a family tragedy, and it tells the story twice, in two separate movies that run back-to-back; one is from his point of view and one from hers, and the order in which they are shown varies from screening to screening.
Variations on the gimmick has been used before, but never with this kind of impact. (Remember the 1991 comedy “He Said, She Said?” I didn’t think so.)
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY: HIM & HER is an extraordinary feature debut for its writer/director Ned Benson. Indeed, it’s so remarkable that it comes close to not needing the modifier “debut” to express how good it is–if Benson hadn’t bitten off a bit more than he could chew, this would have been one (or two) of the best pictures of the year. Even with its flaws, it’s not to be missed.
He’s bitten off quite a lot. In a sense, Eleanor Rigby isn’t Benson’s first movie, but his first two at once, one film and its sequel. With a total running time over 3 hours long, Benson tells the story of a marriage that’s just broken up, with one full-length feature each presenting the story of husband Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy) and his wife Eleanor who is, yes, nee Rigby (Jessica Chastain). This sounds like an invitation to cleverness, the kind of thing the British playwright and puzzle-maker Alan Ayckbourn would dream up, allowing an intricate set of parallels, narrative rhymes, connections and callbacks. (Or, more recently, the Netflix season of Arrested Development.) Actually, though, Conor and Eleanor share relatively little screen time together, and while there are a few “Oh, that’s why she was there at that moment!” bits, mostly these are separate stories.
The central situation is that Conor and Eleanor have been happily married for several years–he’s the son of a famous restauranteur (Ciaran Hinds) and has opened his own modest restaurant, with his best friend (Bill Hader) as the chef; she’s working on her dissertation–when they’re sent reeling by the death of their two-month old son. They react to this tragedy in markedly different ways, and it rips them apart. Conor’s story, Him, is concerned with his disbelief that Eleanor has left him (“disappearance” is a little strong, since he more or less knows where she is) and his struggle to get back on his feet. Her tells the tale of Eleanor’s attempt to move past her crippling grief and somehow remake herself, with the help of her parents (Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt), sister (Jess Weixler) and a professor (Viola Davis) who befriends Eleanor when she goes back to school.
Much of Eleanor Rigby is glorious. Benson has a true gift for creating characters, dialogue and dramatic scenes–and for humor that draws big laughs while feeling totally organic–and even all of that may be less than his skill at working with actors. It’s probably monotonous by now to pronounce the latest Jessica Chastain performance her best yet, but as Eleanor (the role was written with her in mind, and she serves as one of the film’s producers), she’s incandescent, her tangle of sadness, anger, humor and half a dozen other emotions written on her skin. There’s less range to McAvoy’s part, but he’s as good here as he’s ever been. And the virtue of the project’s extended length is that there’s space for the fantastic supporting cast to shine. Bill Hader is astonishingly deft in Him, with a lower gear that he was never able to show on SNL–even though he makes the most of his laughs, he’s also believably vulnerable and a good friend to Conor. Hinds and Nina Arianda, as the bartender in Conor’s restaurant, are also terrific. The supporting pleasures of Her are even greater, with stellar turns by Hurt and Weixler, and a role for Viola Davis so hilariously written and performed that all of Hollywood should be signing her to the next big comedy.
Eleanor Rigby is crammed with emotional detail, constantly lyrical and moving. It’s also more than 3 hours long, and frankly it didn’t need to be. The one big area where Benson underdelivers is in developing narrative momentum, especially in the Him segment. Conor is sad and upset that Eleanor has left him, his restaurant is failing, and sure, things happen, but not 90 minutes worth of them. Benson would have been better off sacrificing his concept of two equal halves and slimming down this portion (or, at the writing stage, giving Conor more to do). Also, Benson’s decision to have almost no background score (there are some songs on the soundtrack) accentuates the emotional starkness, but it makes the 3 hours seem even longer. Her is much less of a problem, both because of Chastain and the other actors and because Eleanor is actively trying to change her life, so there’s much more going on to fill that 90 minutes. (Note: Eleanor Rigby doesn’t have a distributor yet, let alone a distribution plan, so it’s not clear how it would be presented in theatres. At Toronto, today’s screening was Him and then Her, but the plan is apparently to reverse the order for the second screening. A piece of advice: at least allow for an intermission between halves.)
One of the great excitements of film festivals is in seeing new talent emerge, and few are more promising than Ned Benson appears to be. Apart from all his other virtues, he’s also quite skilled on the technical side, and on this project he had very effective partnerships with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt and production designer Kelly McGehee. Several of the performances in Eleanor Rigby are award-worthy, as is his script. The novelistic detail of his vision is admirable. But a movie isn’t quite a novel, and this was a project that needed to be just a bit more audience-friendly.
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I am so glad that this movie is getting praise and especially the fact that Viola appears to be a standout in the movie. I cannot wait to see it because I know Jessica and James worked hard on it and the cast is really impressive.