“Do I seem like a different person?” Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) asks toward the end of The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: Them. It should be tricky to say for sure, based on the context the movie gives. Most of it takes place in the aftermath of Eleanor’s marriage to Connor (James McAvoy), as she slips out of their life, attempting to leave no trace, while he makes his best effort to track her down and maybe win her back. But while the movie offers only slivers of their shared past, Chastain’s performance fills in plenty of blanks. Her steely avoidance of Connor, her brusque walk, even the moments where a smile crawls across her face all tell an emotional story as the narrative withholds potentially crucial information. Yes, she does seem like a different person, even without showing much of the person she used to be.
It’s similarly clear that The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby: Them is a different movie from its original incarnation as two separate features, even without seeing those versions. The film has screened at festivals in cuts subtitled Him and Her, one focusing exclusively on Connor’s point of view and the other following Eleanor’s. When the project found a home with The Weinstein Company, this third cut was prepared in anticipation of audience unwillingness to watch the same story told twice over the course of three-plus hours. The individual films will follow in limited release next month to appease any completists or converts (and because Harvey Weinstein likes charging as many admissions as possible).
The separated versions certainly invite curiosity; in this cut, Chastain dominates the film, and it’s difficult to discern whether this is a logistical side effect or if Him really does wilt in comparison to Her. McAvoy does strong work (even saddled with a passable American accent that makes him sound coarser than probably intended), but sometimes feels adrift in his scenes without Chastain. Perhaps it’s that a revelation about the couple’s past simply offers more depth for Eleanor than Connor; this may even be the point.
That imbalance, intentional or not, leaves McAvoy stuck with more of the movie’s overreaching writing. The dialogue relies too heavily on pithy exchanges that whiff past cleverness into the trite zone. These are the types of people who respond to a simple “I wasn’t expecting you” with a meaning-swollen “I wasn’t expecting me, either,” or who answer the question “Is it sad that I don’t remember?” with a faux-heartbreaking “probably.” In other words, these are characters in a screenplay where every conversation has been pumped with significance steroids. Viola Davis, playing a professor who becomes a sort-of confidant to Eleanor (she resists actual confiding), comes closest to making this kind of contrived talk work, because she appears to be rolling her eyes at her own weary indifference.
Writer-director Ned Benson is more eloquent when he conveys post-relationship pain through his shot choices. When Connor tails his estranged wife through the city, his rumpled, weather-beaten look contrasts with Eleanor’s sleeker appearance, while the camera’s distance from both of them emphasizes their disconnection. (Benson shoots New York City in a way that captures loneliness and isolation in a sea of people.) Later, a simple shot pulling away from McAvoy as he packs up his apartment fills in emotional backstory while keeping narrative exposition smartly minimal—the filmmaking equivalent of Chastain’s expert performance. In these moments, Benson’s uneven film comes alive with purpose, even as it stays rueful and downbeat. Without having seen the two-film version, it’s unclear whether the gender-segregated points of view would enhance that emotional intensity or create more redundancy in an already thin narrative. In this form, The Disappearance Of Eleanor Rigby tows the line between just enough and a bit too much.