NEW YORK | All the lonely people. Where do they all belong?
You won’t hear that line in “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” (more on that title in a moment), a highly absorbing if unwieldy film starring Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy as a couple struggling to cope — apart and together — with tragedy.
In fact, you don’t hear any of that famous Beatles song. But it doesn’t matter, because you’ll probably be hearing it in your head. It’s also an apt 12-word summary of the broader life issues the movie addresses. We’re all alone, essentially, no matter how close we grow to others. We’re born alone, we die alone, and in between, we cope alone. No one can cope for us.
Not that “Eleanor,” written and directed by Ned Benson in his debut feature, is a total downer of a movie. It can’t be, with the luminous Chastain and the appealing McAvoy heading an almost ridiculously high-quality cast. “Eleanor” is about messiness, and risk — in life and in love. But it’s not all sad.
A word about the format, for those coming in cold: “Eleanor” was originally made as a pair of movies, “Her” and “Him,” each a full-length film from the point of view of one character, and made to be seen in either order.
Then the Weinstein Company decided to make “Them,” a more conventional approach, edited from the other two (which will both be released next month.) Some who saw the first versions at festivals have objected that much has been lost. But the rest of us need to judge “Them” on its own merits. And it’s an engrossing film.
Chastain plays Eleanor — yes, last name Rigby — an anthropology student who never finished her thesis. McAvoy plays Conor, a young bar owner. We meet them as they’re discovering the intoxication of first love. It is indeed intoxicating; Chastain and McAvoy have a lovely chemistry.
Cut to an indeterminate time later. Eleanor is pale and troubled. We see her take a desperate act; we don’t know why.
The film then follows both Eleanor’s route to recovery (we’re being intentionally vague here), and Conor’s efforts to track her down. We learn that the two are married, and have suffered a grave setback.
Either Conor or Eleanor is onscreen at all times. Occasionally, they’re together. These scenes are what we wait for: They often crackle with conflicted emotion, and, in one case, deep, unforgettable heartbreak. Chastain’s Eleanor is nervous, flitty, on edge, but every so often her smile breaks the melancholy, and it boy, delivers. This movie only cements Chastain’s status as one of the most compelling actors of her generation. It’s hard to look away from her. And why would you?
Perhaps this enhances McAvoy’s performance, for Conor can’t look away from Eleanor, either. He’s possessed by love, but also frustrated and mystified by it. Kudos to the Scottish actor, first for his flawless American accent, and second for finding a way to so deftly command his own space onscreen, alongside a fiery presence like Chastain’s.
Benson’s script is solid, but the slam dunk here is the cast he’s assembled: Isabelle Huppert as Eleanor’s restless French mother, always with a glass of wine in her hand; William Hurt as Eleanor’s dad, empathetic and distant, too; the great Viola Davis as a no-nonsense professor who helps get Eleanor on her feet; an excellent Ciaran Hinds, as Conor’s wry father; Bill Hader, showing dramatic chops as Conor’s best friend, and the terrific theater actress Nina Arianda, as a flirtatious barmaid.
The cast alone is worth seeing the film, but Benson’s also given us a meaty relationship to ponder, and you could do worse than start with this version. If this is the Spark Notes, though, I’ll definitely be on line for the unabridged option.
I want to know where all these lonely people came from.
“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them,” a Weinstein Co. release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for language.” Running time: 122 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17