It’s great to see films that experiment with their material and this last minute, but very welcome addition to the London Film Festival programme, focuses on the breakdown of a marriage following the unseen death of a couple’s baby son a few months before. Essentially this is 3 films, one from Eleanor’s perspective (Jessica Chastain), one from Conor’s perspective (James McAvoy) and this third version subtitled ‘Them’ which unites elements of their individual streams into one two hour film. The ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ versions were shown at Cannes last year although have yet to be released in the UK, so like many others ‘Them’ is the only version of this story I had seen, and it is an engaging film.
It begins some months after the death of their baby son and Eleanor has disappeared. At no point do we find out what happened to the child or see the couple with him which is a very sensible move from director and writer Ned Benson. It means this carefully constructed and contained film focuses on the aftermath of a tragic event and the consequences for both the individuals and their relationship. It runs on two parallel tracks as Eleanor tries to fill her time with classes at a local university where she finds a friendship of sorts with her lecturer. Meanwhile Conor is running a failing restaurant-bar with his best friend and stalling while he tries to accept his attempt at independence has been unsuccessful. Eventually he knows he’ll have to give in and join forces with his father’s trendy restaurant.
It also has some things to say about parental relationships and it’s interesting to see an American film that doesn’t entirely portray this big all-loving close family idea. Eleanor’s mother is quite distant and not entirely sympathetic to her daughter’s plight, although they clearly care about each other it’s not a close and confiding relationship. Conor likewise seems to resent his father’s success (Ciaran Hinds) and inability to match-up to it, so like a moody teenager he spends much of his time rolling his eyes or avoiding all but a surface engagement. In some ways it’s a far more realistic picture of family interaction than usually seen, and you start to wonder, with such influences, what sort of parents Conor and Eleanor would have made.
Chastain’s gives a complex and emotional performance as Eleanor; she is frustrated by her husband’s ‘put it all in a cupboard and move on’ approach, but she also decides to cut and run, creating a new emotionally unengaged life far away from the wife and mother role she used to have. Although she has a close friendship with her sister and begins to develop a bond with her caustic university lecturer, Eleanor is an isolated figure somewhat separated from her family and with no other friends which in Chastain’s performance feels partially like a deliberate severing and partly a consequence of the person she must have been before the tragedy.
By contrast Conor is far warmer, with a group of friends at his bar and his father with whom he develops a respect as the film progresses. MacAvoy is also excellent (as ever) as the pained Conor, who cannot quite admit his marriage and business are over. Yet his approach is a more practical one, dealing with the consequences of their tragedy affects him differently but no less intensely. McAvoy’s performance is very sensitive and feels believable, but there’s no judgement about Conor, or even Eleanor, being wrong in their response. Conor is very likeable while it is actually harder for the audience to get close to Eleanor because she actively distances herself.
Interestingly Benson uses different colours to light their screen presence; Eleanor has a lighter tone, while Conor is often in tints of blue or black, which the director explained is also used in the ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ versions as a reflection of their character. What makes this project different is its focus on how people deal with tragedy and chooses, quite rightly, not to show you the actual events. Instead fragments of their early relationship are occasionally seen as the characters recall memories of their happier past, but again these are kept to a minimum and used to demonstrate both how optimistic their expectations were then, and the nature of the bond between them. We may not see the past and the future but there is an indication that these two will always be in each other’s lives.
There are a few occasions where Eleanor and Conor cross paths and these scenes are both intense and engaging, showing the awkwardness of a couple breaking up dealing with someone who feels both incredibly familiar and like a stranger. I loved the concept of this three version film and hope that ‘Him’ and ‘Her’ are given a UK release. At least the director hopes to have them all on the DVD together. Nonetheless, ‘Them’ stands alone as sensitive insight into the way people handle difficult events and how it affects their view of themselves, as well as being a successful experiment for Ned Benson, using the same material to make 3 different films. If you get a chance to see it, I would highly recommend you do.
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby was shown at the London Film Festival. No wider UK release date for any of the 3 versions of the film is yet available but look out for them on DVD.