“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby”—Ned Benson’s somber, artfully made meditation on a modern marriage—encompasses many things. It’s about regret, impulse decisions, second chances, fresh starts, reconnecting, uncertainty and drifting in and out of love. It takes place during the fallout of separation between the young married couple Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Conor (James McAvoy). Though, it’s not an official separation; Eleanor refuses to talk to Conor or see him. Benson handles the movie and its many ideas in a mature and honest way and while I enjoyed it I wish I could have first seen it the way Benson originally envisioned it. Let me explain:
When it premiered at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival it was presented as two movies, each one told from the perspective of Eleanor or Conor (called “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her”). The version I saw—and the version being released theatrically—is a combination of the two, given the subtitle “Them.” Even though this version is a quality piece of work I think watching two different movies—featuring different character perspectives on the same story—would have been a much more interesting and unique movie-watching experience.
The movie opens on a happier time in the marriage. Conor and Eleanor, young and in love, are in a restaurant. Conor can’t pay the tab so they dash out the door and collapse onto the lawn of park together, making out. Then suddenly in the next scene Eleanor, speechless and looking emotionally drained, tries to take her own life. The rest of the movie plays out as a sort of mystery; what led to Eleanor’s attempted suicide? Why is she avoiding all contact with Conor?
Benson’s picture shifts perspectives back and forth between the two; we see Eleanor move back in with her parents, cut off all contact with Conor, start taking college classes again and reconnect with her family. Immediately we feel sympathy towards her. Something really bad must have happened to cause her to try suicide and since she’s cut off all contact with Conor we assume that she was abused.
Initially it seems that way. In Conor’s first scene he gets into a fight with an obnoxious customer at his restaurant; he looks flustered and appears to have a short fuse. If he’s willing to fight a random person in public what’s to stop him from abusing his wife? Not only that, he’s a failure. His restaurant is about to go out of business and he has too much pride to take over one of his dad’s (played by Ciaran Hinds) places. Perhaps he feels weak in the eyes of Eleanor, feels as though he can’t provide. However, as the movie goes on and as we see more of his daily life he doesn’t come off as a bad guy or an abuser but instead confused. He doesn’t know what he’s done to be suddenly shut out and you believe him.
The few times they do interact with each other—when he follows her to one of her classes, or when they take a mini road trip—Eleanor clearly isn’t scared or repulsed by him and Conor is sensitive and non-hostile. Benson doesn’t make us take sides in the relationship, each character is equally developed, and both have their positive and negative virtues. Eleanor is never made out to be a victim and Conor is never made out to be the villain. In the end these are just two uncertain people, uncertain for different reasons. Both Chastain and McAvoy give unassuming performances. They’re quiet and not showy and don’t consist of melodramatic yelling and sobbing. Conor and Eleanor are essentially an “every-couple” so McAvoy and Chastain play them low key and down to earth. The supporting actors are also good, particularly Viola Davis as Eleanor’s wise, no nonsense—but also full of regrets herself—psychology professor who sort of becomes her life advisor.
Despite these numerous positive traits I still wish I could have seen the “Him/Her” movies first. I realize that when it comes to marketing and theatrical releases it’s not ideal to release two movies telling the same story from two different angles but it would have been a far more innovative and refreshing way to explore Eleanor and Conor’s relationship. There’s a moment when Conor first sees Eleanor since their separation. He spots her on the other side of a street—he can’t believe his eyes—and follows her like a stalker until she disappears again into the subway tunnel. It’s a somber, haunting moment, one that puts us right into Conor’s mind at that point in time. But since we’ve just seen Eleanor’s side of things before, the moment loses some of its poignancy and mystery.
“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” is a well made film; everything feels visually very intricate and planned out, yet still authentic. Most of the shots last for two minutes or more, letting the emotions in each scene play out gradually and organically. Benson doesn’t feel the need to rush from one scene to the next. The pacing can be a little slow at times though it builds to an ambiguously satisfying ending. Melancholy, but still satisfying. And yet, while watching the movie I couldn’t help but be reminded of how I should have seen Eleanor and Conor’s story first.