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The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

Get the whole picture by watching 'Them' at the cinema and 'Him' and 'Her' at home.
By Sarah Ward
March 16, 2015
By Sarah Ward
March 16, 2015

Ever watched a film, then wanted to spend more time with the characters? Maybe there’s more to their story you’d like to glean, or events you’d like to see fleshed out. Perhaps you’d prefer one person’s point of view over another. In deconstructing a relationship tinged with tragedy, that’s a choose-your-own-adventure experience The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby can offer. That, and getting a certain Beatles’ song stuck in your head, even though it doesn’t feature on the soundtrack.

Writer/director Ned Benson’s first feature is actually three features, with fitting subtitles: Them, Him and Her. The individual parts came first, showing love consumed by grief in a he-said, she-said fashion. Combining and condensing them into one movie was an attempt to make the project more mainstream-friendly. Benson has advised that they can be watched in any order, but only Them is screening in Australian cinemas, with Him and Her available on video on demand.

The tale the films tell is that of Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Conor (James McAvoy), a couple whose happy days seem long gone. To escape their troubles, she disappears from their apartment, moves in with her parents (Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt) and goes back to college. He searches for her then tries to win her back, while struggling to keep his bar open.

Though shot and edited like memories of the past rather than living in the present, it’s a simple, emotional story of fading romance and misfortune seen many times before — “all the lonely people, where do they call come from?” and all that. Them works fine as a standard, standalone relationship drama, its mood of melancholy leaving a firm imprint, and its excellent lead performances by Chastain and McAvoy — both close to their career-best — lifting the well-worn material.

What’s missing is anything more than broad strokes, in the narrative and about the characters. Them tells us very little, other than the obvious: she’s unhappy, he’s lost without her, they love each other but can’t find a way to move forward together. Supporting players such as Eleanor’s sister (Jess Weixler) and college professor (Viola Davis) and Conor’s best mate (Bill Hader) and father (Ciarán Hinds) also seem flimsy, each just someone to lean on. The merged film sketches an outline of everyone and everything, leaving Him and Her to fill in the gaps.

Also absent in the abridged package are differences in perception and perspective. Here, more is more; it is difficult to see Eleanor and Conor’s varying takes on their marriage and its downfall when it’s all smashed together. Not the broad strokes, of course, but the detail. Showing how they each view the same events, exchanges and conversations in distinctive ways isn’t just a gimmick — it’s crucial in understanding the characters and the scenario.

In that respect, perhaps Them does exactly what it is designed to do: whet the appetite, spark fascination and inspire viewers to seek out the rest of the story. That’s certainly our recommendation. There’s a familiar tale told well, shot stylishly and acted with aching insight in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, as long as you get the whole picture.

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