Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby started as two separate films with the subtitles “Him” and “Her.” Each film stood as their own narratives with both lovers separated after their marriage begins to fall apart. The director and writer, Ned Benson, realized that the two would need to be combined in order to make a marketable, releasable feature, thus creating “Them,” the theatrical version of the romance. Condensing a four-hour romantic tale into two hours must have been extraordinary difficult given the circumstances of the narrative, with both actors spending a lot of time apart and only sharing select scenes with one another. Yet the result is a remarkably affecting tale of love lost under the most dire circumstances, and the struggles that come with a long-term romance disrupted by tragedy. While the film at times falls into conventional trappings and broad strokes, the romance works tremendously when built by the drama of the two terrific leads.
Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy) and Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) once had a blissful marriage, surrounded by a strong group of friends and family. Yet their life together fell apart at the loss of their child, forcing them to reconsider how their marriage can survive when the passion seems to be lost. Eleanor leaves Conor and attempts to kill herself, not succeeding and moving in with her parents, Mary (Isabelle Huppert) and Julian (William Hurt). Her mom is from France and likes to drink wine while her father works at a university and wants Eleanor to get back to school. Maybe that’ll set her life back on track and help her find happiness. She enrolls in a class taught by Professor Friedman (Viola Davis), who has an older son and connects with Eleanor’s passion. Conor runs a struggling bar and works with his best friend, Stuart (Bill Hader), a chef that wants to help Conor become less…unfriendly. Eleanor and Conor, in their separation, have grown apart from the other people that they love.
There’s a delicacy to the film’s portrayal of love and loss. In the film’s opening moments, a long take looks at the back-and-forth banter between the two lovers when they were happy. The camera quietly observes, silently letting their actions and words speak for their characters. Moments later, both characters are seen separated and battered by self-inflicted injuries. They are literally hurt by being apart. The film shines when it puts ideas on screen in that low-key way, particularly due to the exemplary cast on hand. The supporting players like Hurt and Davis are given plenty to chew, with the latter in particular using complaints about her son to emphasize the loneliness Eleanor feels at the loss of her only child. There’s a harsh scene where Friedman complains about kids and how they won’t care about you after they leave home, and she asks Eleanor if she has any children. She responds yes, if only to hide the fact that she misses her son and that Friedman has no excuse to complain about a living child.
The heart of the film is Chastain, who breathes tremendous life into her role and has the more dramatically ripe story. Her and McAvoy mirror one another often throughout the film due to their characters going through similar struggles, but Eleanor deals more sensitively with her issues while Conor externalizes most of his. The tragedy underlying the story only rarely emerges; a scene in particular where Conor talks with his restauranteur father (Ciarán Hinds) about their pasts and where their love and happiness went is mesmerizing and tragic. When the film generalizes love, which occasionally emerges in father-daughter conversations, the story aims too broad and misses its mark. But the performances shine through in the film’s final half hour, with two gut-wrenchingly beautiful and haunting scenes delivered back-to-back. Benson’s film is propelled by Chastain’s magnetic, overwhelmingly effective performance, one of the year’s best. Despite its occasional mishaps, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is a gorgeously intimate study of a struggling romance.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)