Although it has nice moments of insights and emotions, “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” may leave you some impression of being incomplete and underdeveloped, and, as some of you already know, there is a good reason for that. In the beginning, there were the two versions which separately look at the story from its two main characters’ respective perspectives, but then, mainly thanks to Harvey Weinstein who acquired them after their premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013, the director/writer Ned Benson was forced to condense them into the one-movie version subtitled as “Them”, which was released in US around late 2014. While they got less exposure, the original two versions, subtitled as “Him” and “Her” respectively, were later put together with the “Them” version in the subsequent Blu-ray/DVD edition which was released in US around early 2015.
Going back and forth between Conor (James McAvoy) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain), “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” shows us how this young couple get more drifted apart from each other after Eleanor decides to leave her husband. Yes, there was a time when they were full of love and happiness as shown in the lovely opening scene, but then their relationship somehow becomes deteriorated several years later, and Eleanor, who looks very numb and unhappy in the following scene, comes to attempt suicide on a bridge on one day.
Fortunately, she is rescued and taken to the hospital, and then she is gone from her husband’s sight without giving him any chance of talk. She moves to live in her parents’ house, and she tries to restart her academic education at the New York University. Through the help of her father Julian (William Hurt), she begins to study under Professor Friedman (Viola Davis), and the other family members are also willing to give Eleanor emotional comfort and support as she searches for the next step in her life.
Meanwhile, we also see Conor’s struggle and confusion with his life without Eleanor. Baffled by her disappearance, he wonders whether there is really any possibility of rebuilding their relationship, but then he has the other problem to deal with. His restaurant bar may be closed down sooner or later, and he will probably have to ask for help from his father Spencer (Ciarán Hinds), a successful restaurant owner who is now past his prime but is still doing well compared to his son’s shabby business going downhill. Conor’s relationship with his father is strained to say the least, and we can sense the distance between father and son when Conor comes to stay at Spencer’s house for a while.
The movie focuses on small moments between characters rather than plot, and the director Ned Benson maintains well the slow, leisurely rhythm of realistic daily life as Conor and Eleanor individually navigate through their respective changed circumstances full of doubt and uncertainty. We come to learn a little more about an incident which tested the strength of their relationship, and, though they and others do not often mention or discuss about it, it is apparent that both of them were deeply affected by that incident – and they still feel hurt as trying to deal with the resulting grief in different ways.
Uneven and meandering at times, Benson’s screenplay is a little too mannered and reserved to generate intended emotional effects, but its narrative defects are mostly compensated by the performances Benson draws from his talented performers. As the two dramatic centers of the story, James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain are constantly engaging to watch regardless of whether they are together or not on the screen; Chastain wonderfully and subtly captures every point of her character’s emotional journey, and McAvoy is also effective as her counterpart although his character is inherently less interesting than Chastain’s. During one crucial scene where their characters happen to be together during one night, Chastain and McAvoy deftly handle the shifting emotional state surrounding their characters, and we can feel affection as well as estrangement between them especially after Conor makes one small confession to Eleanor.
Chastain and McAvoy are also supported well by the other actors in the film, though some of them seem to be undermined by the aforementioned condensation process. William Hurt has a subdued but touching scene in which Julian gives a truthful advice to his daughter, and Isabelle Huppert, who plays Eleanor’s French mother, has her own moments during her scenes with Chastain. There is a brief but meaningful scene which gives us a small glimpse into the long, loving relationship between Julian and his wife, and Hurt and Huppert are effortless in conveying the genuine sense of love and understanding between their characters. While Bill Hader is fun to watch as Conor’s close friend who works as a chef for him, Viola Davis, an intelligent actress who always brings something to appreciate to her characters, imbues her functional role with enough sense and personality, and Ciarán Hinds gives a nicely understated performance as a blunt man who has been not a very good dad to his son but still able to show love and care to him along with sincere advices on life.
In contrast, the movie does not give enough space to the other notable supporting characters in the story. In case of Eleanor’s sister Katy (Jess Weixler), there seems to be a lot to tell about her current life with her young son, but the movie never goes deep into that, and I could sense the possibility of a deleted moment right before her first appearance in the film. While Alexis (Nina Arianda), one of Conor’s employees, looks like having some feelings toward Conor as shown in one scene, she is eventually put aside later in the story, and that is all we can get from her.
In spite of other weak points besides the ones I mentioned above, I recommend “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” mainly for its good performances. As far as I heard from others, watching the “Him” and “Her” versions together seems to be a more satisfying viewing experience (their IMDB scores are higher than that of the “Them” version, for instance), but I felt satisfied with the “Them” version anyway although I could see through its numerous problems during my viewing. It indeed feels incomplete while occasionally being dragged and unfocused, but it is still a sensitive adult drama which is told with intimacy and intelligence, so here goes my temporary 3-star rating with reservation.