Eight months after premiering as a work-in-progress at Toronto, tyro helmer Ned Benson’s two-volume, three-hour-plus marital drama “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” has shed its bifurcated structure and some 70 minutes from its running time, but what’s been lost in girth and conceptual framework has arguably been gained in narrative clarity and emotional resonance. A flawed but fascinating project in any form, “Rigby” is now set to be released (by the Weinstein Co.) in all three edits across various platforms, but it’s this latest version that looks to be seen by the widest audience.
Originally presented (and reviewed here) as two separate pics respectively subtitled “Him” and “Her,” “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” depicted a young New York couple reeling from the recent loss of their infant child from each spouse’s p.o.v. In “Her,” the titular Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) retreated to the Connecticut home of her artist-intellectual parents (William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert) following a suicide attempt. In “Him,” Eleanor’s abandoned husband, Conor (James McAvoy), tried to track down his missing wife while coping with the failing fortunes of his restaurant business.
Only occasionally in each film did the two characters share the screen, which made it all the more impressive that one emerged from the double bill with a sense of the full arc of a complex relationship — a particular credit to Chastain and McAvoy, who both delivered some of the best work of their careers as the wounded lovers wondering if they might ever again make themselves whole. Benson’s recut understandably keeps those shared moments front and center, which has the effect of making things at once more conventional and more gripping, while cutting back on the secondary characters: Eleanor’s parents, sister (Jess Weixler) and Cooper Union “identity theory” professor (Viola Davis); Conor’s friends and co-workers (Bill Hader, Nina Arianda) and a father (the wonderful Ciaran Hinds) himself just divorced from wife number three.
That even those characters still remain quite vivid in “Them” is a credit to the skillful microsurgery of Benson and editor Kristina Boden (“Carlito’s Way”), as is the new cut’s generally seamless flow, despite having been cobbled together from two movies originally designed to not only feel different from one another but to look different too. (Ace d.p. Christopher Blauvelt adopted a warmer, sunnier lighting scheme for “Her” while draping “Him” in wintry, urban blues and grays.) Indeed, there may be no higher compliment one can pay “Them” than to say that if you didn’t know it was an editing-room Frankenstein, you’d probably never guess.
All the recutting in the world can’t fully disguise Benson’s propensity for overripe dialogue, or the fact that the loss of a child may be the single most overused dramatic trigger in movies today, but in all its versions “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” is a film of marked ambition that turns out to know a fair bit about love and loss and the various ways in which we do and don’t grow up to become our parents. At its core is a most affecting portrait of two people who love each other, but may no longer be able to live as one, and it is mostly a pleasure to spend two, or three, or five hours in their company.