With “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby,” first-time writer-director Ned Benson set himself a daunting task: depicting despair on screen. The film follows a couple, Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Conor (James McAvoy), who have separated after the death of their baby son. Writing in The New Yorker, David Denby implies that the subject matter itself is a fool’s errand: “Benson’s courage is impressive, his naiveté dismaying…moods of grief and depression are almost impossible to make exciting.”
It’s true that despair has a different quality than the many “negative” emotions actors generally dish out: anger, anxiety, betrayal, hatred. There’s a stillness to it. By definition, it’s the feeling that nothing will ever change, that change is no longer possible. That lack of movement is antithetical to the typical narrative arc. We expect action, development, growth. And if Benson were going only for despair, I might agree with Denby. But in fact, the filmmaker tantalizes us with the hope, however slight, that despair might begin to lift, that even if the characters cannot recapture their happy past, they might find a future together. The problem is not the mood of despair, but how it is conveyed.
Early in the movie, Eleanor nonchalantly walks her bike along the Manhattan Bridge and just as nonchalantly throws herself into the water beneath. The life she imagined no longer exists and she has no interest in the one that’s on offer. When she’s fished out of the river, she does not return home to Conor, but to live with her parents (Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt), who are already housing Eleanor’s sister (Nina Arianda) and nephew (Wyatt Ralff). It turns out this is not Eleanor’s first disappearance; she is furious with Conor for trying to recreate some semblance of normal life and routinely abandons him, leaving him to stalk her through the streets and subway stations of Manhattan.
Jessica Chastain does delicate yet tough as well as any actress now working. With her nearly translucent skin and steely eyes, she gives the impression of a fairy toting a machine gun. (Maybe that’s just a flashback from “Zero Dark Thirty.”) Here, she may be almost too tough. For much of the movie, she seems directionless more than tormented. With nothing else to do, Eleanor begins taking a sociology class at her father’s university, ultimately befriending her world-weary professor (Viola Davis). The two women eat burgers and make cracks about staying hard, while their husbands went soft. But does hard convey the full agony of a mother who has lost her baby? We see Eleanor’s anger, even her pain, but it always feels tightly controlled, without the humanizing flash of panic or desperation.
James McAvoy’s Conor is in many ways the more sympathetic partner, openly wounded, still grasping for his wife. Yet even when the film focuses on Conor, it is hard to feel what has been lost. Part of the difficulty may come from the movie’s structure. Originally produced as two separate films, one from his perspective, another from hers, the footage has now been combined into a single film, with the subtitle “Them.” The concept is clever: the loss has cleaved such a cavern between husband and wife that their points of view are too disparate to be contained in one movie. Yet, it leaves a hole for the viewer as well.
There are flashbacks to an early date, complete with rolling around in the car, post-coital Twizzlers and Slurpees, and dancing by the side of the road. There’s certainly fun and chemistry here, but what else? Beyond the headiness of first love or lust, we don’t see who these people were, or who they were to each other. Though the movie is framed by the loss of a child, to the viewer, the baby is only a concept. (We do not see even a photo until the end.) The real focus is the loss of love, the loss of self. Several times, Eleanor asks, do I seem different? We can’t answer that question because we never really saw her beforehand.
During the flashbacks, as the couple romps on a deserted road, Conor asks, where are we? And Eleanor replies, somewhere good. It becomes the film’s refrain. Near the end of the movie (no spoiler alert needed –it’s in the previews), Eleanor says, we’ll never get back to where we were. When Conor asks where that was and she replies, wistfully, somewhere good, we have to take her word for it. The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby could have made us feel the loss so much more acutely had we been there with them.
Emily Turner is an editor at Island Press, where she acquires books on food, health, and sustainability. She has also worked at NYU Press and Academy Chicago Publishers. She earned a BA in English literature from the University of Virginia and is pursuing a MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She lives in Los Angeles, CA.