The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Toronto Review

'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby'

Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy star in this two-part love story seen through the eyes of a New York couple trying to understand each other as they cope with personal hardship.

A sensitive, talented debut that makes the gimmick of telling the same love story twice, from his and her viewpoints, almost work.

In his feature debut, New York filmmaker Ned Benson brings together a dream cast with Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy toplining.

The eternal mystery of love, its ebb and flow, its comedy and drama, has long been a favorite subject of literature and, in its Manhattan variety, of Woody Allen films. There’s certainly a literary feeling behind the seriously if coyly titled The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her. Ned Benson’s accomplished first feature describes the break-up of a marriage first through the eyes of the young husband, then the wife’s, in two semi-autonomous parts each lasting an hour and a half. Intense and engaging performances from Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy bring the well-written screenplay to life. The only obstacle to its release as the ideal date movie is the film’s three-hour running time, which makes itself felt the second time the same story comes around.

Many will be quick to recognize the Rashomon conceit, in which different, highly subjective viewpoints contribute information about the same event, information that might be true or false. Since Benson’s characters are almost frighteningly sincere and truthful, the slight discrepancies that crop up in their overlapping scenes seem owing to tricks of memory rather than a desire to deceive.

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Theoretically it's possible to screen Him and Her in any order, reversing the film to Her and Him. Although the Toronto Film Festival promised to run this experiment, it is doubtful that anyone saw both versions to compare the effect.

Conor (McAvoy) and Eleanor (Chastain) are charmed young lovers for whom life is a game, though ominously he asks her not to break his heart in the first scene. They live in lower Manhattan, where he has a small restaurant and bar. But after a great tragedy strikes in their lives, they begin pulling apart. While both of them are traumatized, they react in different, perhaps gender-specific ways that lead Eleanor to disappear one day from Conor’s life.

In Him, Conor becomes obsessed with finding her and getting back together. But life isn't that easy, especially since she seems determined to stay lost. The highlight of this part is his relationship to his wry, thrice-married father (played by an extraordinarily original Ciaran Hinds), who owns a successful NYC restaurant. Conor is paying off a bank loan on his small eaterie, which is succumbing to the economic downturn.

The tone of Her is slightly different, filling in story blanks and fleshing out the mysterious Eleanor Rigby. We learn how she acquired such a ridiculous name and the changes that take place over time in her goals and feelings. There is too much detail about her relationship with her French mother (Isabelle Huppert), whose career frustration is symbolized by an overused wine glass that never leaves her hand, and her father (William Hurt), a college professor who has trouble communicating. She’s very close to her sister Katy (Jess Weixler), a county librarian with a child who has given up other ambitions. And there are long scenes with a straight-talking female teacher (Viola Davis) who becomes a friend. All of these characters are worth knowing and the acting is excellent all around, but somewhere along the line the narrative arc vanishes and tedium sets in.

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They make an unusual couple; she’s a student of anthropology and he’s a foodie and entrepreneur. Their families and friends seem very different, too. But both are willing to gamble all they have for what they believe they want, and both are bold enough to run out of a restaurant without paying. Chastain and McAvoy are also quite different actors, and it’s sometimes a bit difficult to imagine them so passionately in love. Chastain brings an edgy nervousness to the role that verges on the irritating, while McAvoy is communicative, understandable and as lovable as a teddy bear; as Eleanor remarks, “He went soft and I stayed hard.” It’s an interesting gender reversal and one Benson explores thoroughly.

A filmmaker less determined to structure the film in two equal parts would have stepped on the accelerator after two hours of narration, much of it repeated at that. The ending, for example, is truly affecting, but more so the first time we see it. This would probably be the case whichever half screened first.

Tech work is sensitive but unobtrusive, taking maximum advantage of authentic New York locations. Music plays a big but negative role in Conor’s aversion to most anything that’s playing on the radio or elsewhere. New York alternative hip-hop composer Son Lux supplies the sounds he does like. Not a single note of the Beatles’ Eleanor Rigby is ever heard in the film. It’s not needed: You sing it to yourself.

Venue:  Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation)
A Unison Films, Myriad Pictures presentation of a Dreambridge, Standard Deviations production  
Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Nina Arianda, Viola Davis, Bill Hader, Ciaran Hinds, Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt, Jess Weixler
Director: Ned Benson
Screenwriter: Ned Benson
Producers: Cassandra Kulukundis, Ned Benson, Jessica Chastain, Todd Labarowski, Emanuel Michael
Executive producers: Kirk D’Amico, Peter Pastorelli, Brad Collidge, Melissa Coolidge, Jim Casey, Kim Waltrip
Director of photography: Christopher Blauvelt
Production designer: Kelly McGehee
Music: Son Lux
Editor: Kristina Boden
Sales: Myriad Pictures
No rating, 191 minutes