“All the lonely people/ Where do they all come from?” The Beatles crooned. An apt description for the woman at the centre of the film, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them. Every relationship consists of three stories: those of the two people involved and a third, less subjective version, a combination of their two points of view.
That’s the premise of this film, in which saw debut writer-director Ned Benson, make two separate Rigby films, one subtitled Him, the other Her, both screened at Cannes in previous years. These are the same story of a New York couple, Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Conor (James McAvoy), whose marriage falls apart after a tragic loss. The two films have slightly different emphases to show the characters’ different feelings during the same situations. Them merges these two versions into a compelling two-hour re-cut.
The film begins with a scene from a happy time, when Eleanor and Conor ditch a restaurant bill and run into a park. They roll in the grass, staring at the fireflies. It’s a time of laughter, love, joy. The very next scene however, shows Eleanor trying to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge and into a river. What led to this moment? Slowly, as the film oscillates between Eleanor and Conor’s different viewpoints, and through flashbacks of the past, the viewer comes to understand what it is that pulled the two apart, and how they let it happen.
After Eleanor’s attempted suicide she moves in with her parents, living in her childhood bedroom. The poster for the classic film A Man and a Woman, adorns the wall, appears not accidental, referring to the story of a couple who had to overcome personal tragedies to be together. Eleanor begins to take some classes at university, where she strikes up a friendship with her professor (Viola Davis), whose pithy, cynical truths seem to help her move on. “He stayed soft. I turned hard,” she says about her divorce, a line Eleanor appropriates minutes later to explain why her own marriage has failed.
But even as Eleanor tries to carve out a new life, Conor struggles. He follows her across the city, watching her, trying to catch a glimpse of the life that no longer involves him. Their conversation they sit on the pavement after Conor is hit by a car while begging Eleanor to hear him out, reveals their inability to overcome tragedy. “I was gonna say something good. Something that would have solved all our problems and make it all better but I forgot what it was,” Connor tells Eleanor. “That’s too bad,”
The film is fairly slow, and I feel a bit as if I’ve missed out by seeing the first two, even though they tell the same story. Jessica Chastain is a powerful Eleanor Rigby, the epitome of The Beatles’ lonely girl, who wears “the face that she keeps in a jar by the door”. James McAvoy is sympathetic as Conor, the struggling restaurateur who has become an outsider to his previous life.
Them asks the question: what is the point at which a happy relationship goes from good to bad, and is it ever possible to go back? At times, the film feels slightly vague but it is a poignant navigation of the emotional complexities that mark the end of a strong bond between two people. As so often in life, there is no big revelation to push them back together, just hints that different choices are possible.
Rating: 3½ out of 5
Cast: Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Viola Davis, William Hurt
Director: Ned Benson
Local release date: 13 March 2015