Monumental loss is, and ever will be, the most tortuous and excruciating experience most will ever go through in their lifetime. Having had the experience myself, I call it ‘the club no one wants to join.” Conversely, no one would argue that the most beautiful experience of life is love in all its forms. Unfortunately sometimes they have a hard time existing in the same place. This struggle is the basis for first time writer/director Ned Benson’s film series “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” starring Jessica Chastain as Eleanor and James McAvoy as Conor her husband, who are experiencing tragedy very differently, and that difference is causing them to rip apart. Though promotion has suggested it is a romantic drama, it is more about how people’s individual suffering impacts relationships with all those around them.
Originally conceived as 2 films called HIM and HER, where the lead actors’ stories are featured from their perspective, this film, THEM, is the result of a blending together from the other two, created to allow the work to be seen at Cannes, which required unreleased properties to be accepted into the festival. THEM is being released widely September 19th, while HIM and HER will be shown in ten cities and on demand starting October 10th.
In the interest of allowing myself some credibility, I should say I have worked as a volunteer with hospice care, Compassionate Friends, and other loss related groups. The filmmakers and promoters of the film don’t want spoilers about what the couple in DoER are going through, as it is revealed rather far into the movie. However, those who have gone through it will recognize it in the first five minutes. They will also be able to tell that writer/director Benson must too have had personal loss, a fact he revealed to me in my one-on-one interview with him, which you can see HERE. There is raw truth in every written word. This alone is rare enough to warrant those who have come to live with their loss to support these films.
Everyone experiences loss in their own way, but in every case i’ve ever seen or experienced, whether demonstrated to the world or held on to internally, there is an extended time of great emotional turmoil. Numbing those feelings seems essential to survival. With the film’s script, Benson captures the in-between world of those trying to navigate through loss to find who they will or can become. He also shows their often unsuccessful interactions with those around them. It is a place of slow motion suffering, of confusion about one’s place in the world, and of the struggle to choose to continue in a new world in which an element of darkness and sadness will always be present.
The failure of THEM is probably the best quality present in HIM and HER. Those two movies, which tell the story from each character uniquely, show two very different experiences of loss, hope, despair, and forward movement. Eleanor and Conor cannot understand themselves and how they can relate authentically with others who don’t know their pain, but they approach that confusion and pain in opposite ways. “Tragedy is a foreign country. We don’t know how to speak to the natives” says Bill Hurt as Eleanor’s father, Julian Rigby. When broken down to show Eleanor’s story in HER and Conor’s story in HIM, we get to see their experience of loss and their perspectives on how it impacts their relationship with each other. As anyone who has had loss while in a relationship will tell you, moving forward is done very differently and is a very personal and intimate process for both partners.
In making the decision to carve out an ostensibly more objective third movie showing both characters’ processes, it loses clear direction. They both are, in their own way, disappearing and not facing the tragedy that has changed everything for them. For an authentic portrayal of the experience of losing oneself after loss, there would have to be a feeling of personal purgatory, when time slows down and even the blandest daily interactions feel like Herculean emotional undertakings. That slowing doesn’t work nearly as well in an integrated film, and limits the development of both the main characters.
Even the truncation of fully formed characters, however, is not enough to dim the shine of stars Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy. Whatever parts of the story missing from the screen in THEM present in HIM and HER remain alive in their portrayals and inform every glance and gesture, and color every response. They live the experience of the characters, and the audience lives it with them.
One gets the sense that far more is missing from HIM, since we see little of Conor’s journey. We learn about and see far more of HER. Still, the truths at the root of this kind of narrative remains intact. While we are also offered less information about the secondary characters, co-stars Viola Davis, Jess Weixler, Isabelle Hubbert, and Bill Hader find a way to lend a reality to their roles. William Hurt and Ciaran Hinds, as the fathers of Eleanor and Conor respectively, run away with several pivotal scenes. The most memorable and haunting is Hurt describing an experience towards the end of the movie in a monologue that was not only beautifully written, and based on writer Benson’s own life, but exquisitely acted.
That is the salvation of THEM, a film that should never have existed. The writing and the acting, in combination, carry truth to a rarely represented experience in life into the darkness of a movie theater. As charming and sweet as the moments showing Eleanor and Conor and their love for each other are, don’t believe this is just a romance. It tackles way more than that. It is about love, yes, the survival or end of love when faced with monumental loss, and the hope that can sometimes survive through it all.
3 out of 5 stars: *recommendation- see HIM and HER