The Disappearance of Elanor Rigby: Them
by George Sax
The subtitle of Ned Benson’s The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby refers to its origin as a combination of two previous films, Him and Her. Those deconstructed a marriage on the rocks, each from the viewpoint of a different spouse. Benson has knit scenes from these films into Them so competently that there’s no obvious evidence that it’s not an original, discrete work. It’s an impressively skillful job of editing and recycling.
This is not to say he’s succeeded in creating an involving portrait of a critically damaged marriage. It’s too difficult to say whether the first two films would jointly have offered that, but Them falls short, however admirable some of its stitched-together parts.
We meet the title character (Jessica Chastain) at a crucial juncture. Biking across a bridge over New York’s East River, she stops midway and jumps. She survives, perhaps a little unconvincingly. Eventually, we learn that she was reacting in despair after the death of her young child and the dissolution of her union with Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy), although why she has fled from him isn’t made clear. Conor, ignorant of her suicide attempt, has been desperately searching for her since she disappeared.
Eleanor retreats to her parents’ Georgian Colonial home in Connecticut, and makes half-hearted stabs at emotional recovery, including enrolling in a psych course at Cooper Union taught by a friend of her father (William Hurt, trying too hard to seem reassuringly restrained). The course prof (Viola Davis in a badly written part) forms a bond with Eleanor, but this extended plot tangent never really amounts to much.
Meanwhile, when not searching for his wife, Conor has been trying with scant success to start a Village bistro, living with the successful restauranteur father he resents (Ciaran Hinds).
Since Conor and Eleanor have relatively little screen time together, most of the movie tracks their separate, sadly freighted efforts to find consolation and stability. There are scenes of strength, wit, and sympathy. Their effectiveness owes a lot to the performers, particularly the two leads. McAvoy uses his British-stage-trained voice to deftly lend a persuasive concreteness to many of his lines, making Conor both earnest and charming. Chastain does better with her role than many other actresses would have, but it’s too loosely written and challenges even her. Eleanor remains something of a cypher, despite all her and the other characters’ psychologically styled and elliptical conversation.
Benson seems to have devoted more effort at establishing mood, or perhaps attitude, than dramatic coherence. It may be a little too easy to feel cynically superior about the movie’s treatment of the principals’ privileged petite-bourgeois alienation, but Benson makes it too tempting.
Watch the trailer for The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby
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