The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

by Kevin Taft

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Friday September 12, 2014

James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain star in 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby'
James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain star in 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby'  

Every year there is that one polarizing film that some critics and audiences will adore, and others will loathe. This year it seems that "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them" will take that crown.

Originally created as two feature films called "Him" and "Her," the story of a marriage falling apart was told from two different perspectives. Think "He Said, She Said," but a lot more depressing. While those two films will be released together in October, first the studio is releasing "Them" - a version that includes portions of both films, making it a more seamless narrative. There isn't really a noticeable "his version/her version" gimmick in this 122-minute melding of the two films, but you can sort of catch how the stories could be separated.

The film revolves around Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy) and his wife Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) -- named after the famous song because her parents met at a fake Beatles concert that never ended up happening. (Plus, her father's surname is Rigby.) At first, the two seem to be as happy and in love as any newlywed couple. We are introduced to them at dinner where Conor realizes he can't pay for the meal so the two do a "dine-and-dash." But in the very next scene, Eleanor is walking with her bike along the edge of a bridge, drops the bike, and jumps over the edge. When she winds up in the hospital, we see her visited by Conor, but the two never end up speaking. Soon after, she is retrieved by her sister Katy (Jess Weixler) and goes to her parent's (William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert) home outside the city to stay. There, she decides to start a new life and her professor father sets her up to go back to college. At this point she's disconnected her cell phone and has no contact with Conor, for what reason, we don't know.

The film then travels between the broken couple. We watch Eleanor struggle to find herself as she befriends a cynical professor (Viola Davis) and tries to make a connection with her family. It is here that we learn a little about why the marriage started to crumble. But writer/director Ned Benson only doles this information out in small pieces, and quite frankly, if you're looking for an exact account as to what occurred, you'll never get it. This film is about character. It is measuredly paced, and the characters speak like normal people. Their cadences are natural and, for some people, this might try their patience.

Eleanor comes across fairly unlikeable at first. For all we know, she has simply up and left her husband and disappeared. Conor, on the other hand, is devastated at the loss and doesn't understand what's happening. He does know he shouldn't run after her, but eventually he'll start to cross his own boundary lines to make contact. And they do here and there. But the dance they do is what many couples who suffer a tragedy attempt: They never discuss the one thing they need to. The pain is too much to bear, but it is that pain that is what needs to be brought out into the open if either of them is going to heal.

First time feature director Benson fills his script with a lot of flowery advice and token phrases that are apropos, but also laughably cliché. The funny thing is -- he knows it, and quite frequently the characters will comment on it. While some may think this is cheap sentimentality, it's an honest portrayal of how people react to people going through a lot of problems. The repeat back phrases they've heard that they think will help, no matter how eye-rolling they may sound.

Despite how much patience you will or won't have with the film, the cast is undeniably terrific, especially our two leads. Chastain proves again that she can barely do any wrong (okay, well maybe "Mama"). Here she is tough, delicate, frail, and stalwart, all in equal parts. While she seems cold at the outset, we eventually warm to her, and her final monologue is heartbreaking. She is luminous.

McAvoy has seem to be going the action or superhero movie route as of late, so it's nice to be reminded that he is truly a fine actor. While his character pines a bit and is relegated to stalking his wife to figure out what is wrong, in this there is a depth to the role that goes beyond just the relationship with his wife. Both characters, in fact, are informed by the relationship they have with their parents, and as the film progresses, we uncover why they are who they are layer by layer.

Beautifully photographed, with gorgeous music by Son Lux, there's so much to appreciate in this moody film and Benson fills the frames and scenes with symbolism that is thought-provoking. There's a reason that the two seem to never have sex in a "normal" place. Why is it they talk easier when they are in a car -- is it the possibility of escape? Is it that they have the potential to move forward? There's a lot of these moments throughout that make "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby" a film that could be studied not only for the social and character paradigms, but also the filmmaking itself.

Again, this isn't a happy film, and it could easily bore those looking for standard romantic fare. But for those that love a study of relationships as well as tremendous acting, this film is something you can disappear into.

Kevin Taft is a screenwriter/critic living in Los Angeles with an unnatural attachment to 'Star Wars' and the desire to be adopted by Steven Spielberg.