Ned Benson’s somber relationship drama, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, is not a mystery despite the title, though it’s plenty puzzling. The version reviewed here, Them, is an edited combination of what was originally two separate films, Him and Her. It flips back and forth between our two players Conor (James McAvoy, donning an unconvincing American accent) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain, all pale grief and feigned smiles) as their marriage disintegrates, but it never plays its gimmick out with the obvious one scene played twice from different points of view gag. That may have actually made the film a bit more interesting, though it would’ve also added to the film’s already burdensome two-hour-plus runtime.
After surviving a leap from a bridge, Eleanor moves back in with her parents (William Hurt as the stereotypical soft-spoken bearded professor and Isabelle Huppert as a drunk French former violinist) and single-mom sister (a likable Jess Weixler, who it would’ve been nice to learn more about), while taking a class on the theory of identity taught by a bitter but wise woman (Viola Davis). Meanwhile, Conor is moping around his failing restaurant, lashing out at customers and his best friend/chef (Bill Hader) and moves back in with his recently thrice divorced and overly philosophical father (Ciaran Hinds, always good). Slowly but surely we find out the real reason behind the break-up and their decent into the spiral of grief (hint: it’s not just about losing each other), and it is indeed tragic and hangs a pall over the whole family, not just our protagonists.
The film is filled with talking it out and philosophical ponderings espoused by really good performers. In lesser acting hands, the film would’ve been an outright mess. The characters speak dialogue sincerely as if read from discarded Felicity-era WB melodramas and self-help books.
There’s one line in the beginning, where Conor warns Eleanor to be gentle with him because there is only one heart in his body, that was so saccharin I thought for a brief moment I might have become diabetic. But Benson, the writer, is perhaps more knowing than these clichéd mumblings. At numerous points secondary characters try to console our protagonists with nonsensical, fumbling to be profound, gobbily-gook to which each replies, “What the hell are you talking about?”
Yet as the film progresses and they try to rediscover themselves, there are moments of true poignancy:
- Eleanor’s release of a captured firefly in a quite field alone (fireflies are used symbolically throughout the film)
- Conor’s chat with his father where he finally allows him to speak about that which can not be spoken and the two show hints of personality while comparing the sad arcs of their lives
- Eleanor’s father’s revelation to her about one fateful day at the beach that he had never told anyone before
A famous critic once said that all a good film needed was at least three good scenes. Eleanor Rigby has exactly three good scenes, and the film, for all its faults and deceptively dour dullness, still manages to pull us in beneath the surface, if only for those fleeting moments.
Despite these powerful scenes, however, you leave the film feeling like you never really got to know either Him or Her (can you ever truly know anyone?). There’s something missing. But maybe that’s the point. When all consumed by grief, that’s all that’s left of a person…of a couple…and there’s nothing else to them…they disappear. Or maybe it’s a just a sign of poor writing on Benson’s part that you never really know these people. And that’s the real mystery of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.
Written by David H. Schleicher