CANNES – After debuting last September at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival in separate “Him” and “Her” versions, the combined “Them” (version) of Ned Benson's “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” screened on this side of the pond this afternoon. “Him” and “Her” told a story of a couple in crisis from the different perspectives of the film's main characters, Connor (James McAvoy) and the eponymous Eleanor (Jessica Chastain). “Them” is an attempt to tell the story as an equitable narrative for both characters, but it is clearly still driven by Eleanor's heartache and emotional journey.
After quickly demonstrating the couple's initial adoration for each other, the picture moves to the present where Eleanor makes a dramatic decision that puts her in the hospital and, quite soon, out of Connor's life. No explanation is given to Connor of Eleanor's reasoning or even where she's gone (one of the film's rare moments of disbelief is how long it takes him to figure out she's moved back in with her parents). Eventually we learn she's made this choice after months of tension following a personal tragedy, but Connor is dumbstruck over the immediate events and Eleanor's unwillingness to talk to him.
Connor's life is a mountain of stress as he's also dealing with the failure of a restaurant he started with his best friend (Bill Hader). Meanwhile, Eleanor finds herself dealing with parents (Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt) who are unsure how to cope with her trauma. Her father suggests she take a class with a former colleague, Lillian (Viola Davis), to help clear her mind. They quickly develop a friendship that transforms how Eleanor sees her current predicament.
While the strained relationship between Chastain and McAvoy's characters is clearly the center of the movie, it's Eleanor's scenes with Lillian that feature some of the film's best moments. There is a certain sparkle watching the former “Help” co-stars and Oscar nominees perform onscreen together, but Davis' excellent portrayal of Lillian is key in giving Eleanor perspective as she decides how to keep on living.
Chastain, who is also a producer on the project, is simply exquisite. There are only a handful of actresses who could have pulled this character off and Chastain clearly demonstrates she's one of them. Even though some might find Eleanor's character selfish in her actions, Chastain find a balance that wears her depression well. She never plays Eleanor as incapable or overburdened. Instead, Eleanor is just trying to look in the mirror (a recurring theme) and discover who she really is at this point in her life. There is an incredible scene toward the end of the film where she breaks down in front of Connor that many will label an “Oscar reel moment.” Such recognition would be genuinely deserved.
McAvoy is certainly overshadowed by Chastain, but that observation isn't meant to diminish his work here. As in “Filth” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” McAvoy is at the top of his game portraying Connor with a subtle balance of empathetic frustration and anger. In one particular scene with Ciaran Hinds (who plays his father), Connor finally lets it all out, but because he's so beaten down, McAvoy expertly plays it more like a sad exhale than a scream. It's a great choice and indicative of the blend of realism and romanticism Benson, McAvoy and Chastain are trying to achieve.
Benson is a first-time feature filmmaker and gets the expected benefits of recruiting top notch actors such as Hupert, Hurt, Davis and Hinds to surround his leads. He owes much more, however, to cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt and a beautiful electric score from Son Lux. The film's problems, unfortunately, seem inherent to mixing scripts from two different POVs into one story. “Them” feels slightly longer than it needs to be and suffers from an unnecessarily busy third act. That being said, Benson's “final” ending is truly a unique choice and a wonderfully moving moment that haunts you as you walk out of the theater.
The “Them” version of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” will be released on Sept. 26 with “Him” and “Her” receiving select limited runs a few weeks later.