September 10, 2013

TORONTO FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW: “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her”


THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY: HIM & HER is an extraordinary feature debut for its writer/director Ned Benson.  Indeed, it’s so remarkable that it comes close to not needing the modifier “debut” to express how good it is–if Benson hadn’t bitten off a bit more than he could chew, this would have been one (or two) of the best pictures of the year.  Even with its flaws, it’s not to be missed.

He’s bitten off quite a lot.   In a sense, Eleanor Rigby isn’t Benson’s first movie, but his first two at once, one film and its sequel.  With a total running time over 3 hours long, Benson tells the story of a marriage that’s just broken up, with one full-length feature each presenting the story of husband Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy) and his wife Eleanor who is, yes, nee Rigby (Jessica Chastain).  This sounds like an invitation to cleverness, the kind of thing the British playwright and puzzle-maker Alan Ayckbourn would dream up, allowing an intricate set of parallels, narrative rhymes, connections and callbacks.  (Or, more recently, the Netflix season of Arrested Development.)  Actually, though, Conor and Eleanor share relatively little screen time together, and while there are a few “Oh, that’s why she was there at that moment!” bits, mostly these are separate stories.

The central situation is that Conor and Eleanor have been happily married for several years–he’s the son of a famous restauranteur (Ciaran Hinds) and has opened his own modest restaurant, with his best friend (Bill Hader) as the chef; she’s working on her dissertation–when they’re sent reeling by the death of their two-month old son.  They react to this tragedy in markedly different ways, and it rips them apart.  Conor’s story, Him, is concerned with his disbelief that Eleanor has left him (“disappearance” is a little strong, since he more or less knows where she is) and his struggle to get back on his feet.  Her tells the tale of Eleanor’s attempt to move past her crippling grief and somehow remake herself, with the help of her parents (Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt), sister (Jess Weixler) and a professor (Viola Davis) who befriends Eleanor when she goes back to school.

Much of Eleanor Rigby is glorious.  Benson has a true gift for creating characters, dialogue and dramatic scenes–and for humor that draws big laughs while feeling totally organic–and even all of that may be less than his skill at working with actors.  It’s probably monotonous by now to pronounce the latest Jessica Chastain performance her best yet, but as Eleanor (the role was written with her in mind, and she serves as one of the film’s producers), she’s incandescent, her tangle of sadness, anger, humor and half a dozen other emotions written on her skin.  There’s less range to McAvoy’s part, but he’s as good here as he’s ever been.  And the virtue of the project’s extended length is that there’s space for the fantastic supporting cast to shine.  Bill Hader is astonishingly deft in Him, with a lower gear that he was never able to show on SNL–even though he makes the most of his laughs, he’s also believably vulnerable and a good friend to Conor.  Hinds and Nina Arianda, as the bartender in Conor’s restaurant, are also terrific.  The supporting pleasures of Her are even greater, with stellar turns by Hurt and Weixler, and a role for Viola Davis so hilariously written and performed that all of Hollywood should be signing her to the next big comedy.

Eleanor Rigby is crammed with emotional detail, constantly lyrical and moving.  It’s also more than 3 hours long, and frankly it didn’t need to be.  The one big area where Benson underdelivers is in developing narrative momentum, especially in the Him segment.  Conor is sad and upset that Eleanor has left him, his restaurant is failing, and sure, things happen, but not 90 minutes worth of them.  Benson would have been better off sacrificing his concept of two equal halves and slimming down this portion (or, at the writing stage, giving Conor more to do).  Also, Benson’s decision to have almost no background score (there are some songs on the soundtrack) accentuates the emotional starkness, but it makes the 3 hours seem even longer.  Her is much less of a problem, both because of Chastain and the other actors and because Eleanor is actively trying to change her life, so there’s much more going on to fill that 90 minutes.  (Note: Eleanor Rigby doesn’t have a distributor yet, let alone a distribution plan, so it’s not clear how it would be presented in theatres.  At Toronto, today’s screening was Him and then Her, but the plan is apparently to reverse the order for the second screening.  A piece of advice:  at least allow for an intermission between halves.)

One of the great excitements of film festivals is in seeing new talent emerge, and few are more promising than Ned Benson appears to be.  Apart from all his other virtues, he’s also quite skilled on the technical side, and on this project he had very effective partnerships with cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt and production designer Kelly McGehee.  Several of the performances in Eleanor Rigby are award-worthy, as is his script.  The novelistic detail of his vision is admirable.  But a movie isn’t quite a novel, and this was a project that needed to be just a bit more audience-friendly.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."