Ned Benson’s debut film The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them presents something of a problem. This was originally two movies — The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him — that showed the same story from two points of view. But Harvey Weinstein told Benson he needed to recut the film into one more-tractable feature. This is what Benson delivered. However, it doesn’t end there, because Weinstein plans on releasing the other two films separately — in a more limited release — a little later. So what we end up with are three movies, but only one of them is currently available to us. The only reasonable approach is to take The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them on its own, even though it’s hard to dismiss the fact that there’s more to come. The thing is, I’m pretty well satisfied with this combined 122-minute version, which is something of a shock, since my level of interest going into the film was below sea level. Rarely have I been so agreeably surprised. Now, I can’t help but wonder if the jumbled timeline and delicious ambiguities of this version won’t be lost upon extended examination, but that’s another consideration for another time.
On its simplest level, this is an examination of the disintegration of the marriage of Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy) and Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain) in the wake of a shared tragedy that drove Eleanor to attempt suicide — after which she “disappears” by going home to her parents. The film doles out its information in very small pieces, carefully avoiding what is behind all this — including the nature of the tragedy (though that isn’t hard to guess pretty early on). That may not sound all that exciting, but the film is so beautifully detailed, so literate in its writing and so perfect in its casting that it completely transcends its fairly simple story to become a remarkably rich moviegoing experience. The main characters, their families and friends come across as real people that it’s possible to relate to — and yet, it suggests far more than it states. You feel that you know these people, but — much as in real life — what you know, or think you know, is pieced together over a period of time. By the film’s pretty brilliant — and tantalizingly inconclusive — final shot, they feel complete, even if that sense is founded more on impression than fact.
The casting is a major factor in what makes The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them work. McAvoy and Chastain could scarcely be better, but much of the film’s tone comes from the characters that surround them and their relations with those characters. William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert make such believable parents for Chastain that their dubious decision to name her after perhaps the saddest character in pop music is as understandable as it is ill-considered. These are possibly wonderful people, but they’re far from perfect — both are qualities conveyed over time. The same is true for Ciarán Hinds as McAvoy’s father — a seemingly distant man, who is more awkward than cold. Even more sketched-in characters like Bill Hader as McAvoy’s friend and partner in a failing restaurant, and Viola Davis as a not-as-tough-as-she-seems professor offer the illusion of reality. But, in fairness, none of this would work if McAvoy and Chastain didn’t — or if the writing wasn’t first rate.
I have deliberately detailed very little of the plot, because what I found most appealing about the film was the sense of it constantly veering from the obvious — even if only slightly. It does this so effortlessly that I was startled when I realized that the movie was nearly over and I was still filling in the blanks and wondering about some of the more ambiguous details. For example, Eleanor appears to be largely oblivious to the song from which her name was derived — to the point that she supposedly doesn’t recognize the source when lyrics are quoted to her. Yet, very late in the film we see a blowup of the Revolver cover — The Beatles album the song is on — festooning the wall of her apartment. As with so much in the film, there is more here than appears on the surface. It may not be perfect, but it’s so close that it hardly matters — especially when it soars. Rated R for language.