One thing that needs to be understood about The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is that it was originally conceived and screened as two films: Him and Her. These films, which both depict the same story of a collapsing marriage, were filmed separately and are each told from the perspective of one member of the central couple – Eleanor, played by Jessica Chastain, and Connor, played by James McAvoy. These two halves were filmed separately, and are not only stylistically different (Him features tight cinematography and a cool color palette, while Her features some handheld camerawork and plenty flashes of red), but also depict the details of their few shared scenes slightly differently, dependent on the perspective of the film’s POV character. The version discussed in this review is Them, a single film cut together from the two originals that pulls together the two stories into one continuous narrative. All three films will have a theatrical release, but Them will probably be the most likely to get a wide release.
Regardless of the version, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby tells the story of a marriage on the rocks after the title event. The somewhat obnoxiously-named Eleanor suffers from a bout of depression, is hospitalized, and then abruptly and without explanation leaves her husband to move back in with her family. To give herself something to do, she enrolls in a class taught by a cynical, wry professor (Viola Davis) who becomes a close confidante. Connor, left suddenly alone, tries to figure out what happened to Eleanor meanwhile attempting to keep his restaurant business, run with his best friend (Bill Hader), from going under. Along the way, the audience learns a lot about why both parties might be dissatisfied with the relationship, as well as how their relationships with other characters (particularly their parents) factor into their feelings.
The performances are at the core of the film. Jessica Chastain puts out the high caliber work we’ve come to expect from her, and James McAvoy gives his best performance since at least 2007’s Atonement, if not better. Both are such finely-tuned and gracefully executed performances, perhaps the benefit of each filming their own movies as the uncontested lead. Even with the mixed footage, both dominate their screentime, if in an occasionally awkward baton-passing sort of way – probably inevitable given the film’s origins. The supporting turns are quality too, from the aforementioned Bill Hader and Viola Davis to other smaller roles from William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, and Ciaran Hinds. The film lives and dies by its lead roles, though – it is, after all, the emotional arcs of Eleanor and COnnor that make up the meat of the film.
It must be said of the script that it does its best not to fall into cliché. Many of the indie-tragic romance tropes are played with in clever ways or averted altogether. The series of events the film depicts follows natural life rhythms and reflects the messy, start-and-stop nature of a faltering romance. The two leads alternately become obsessed with the fallout of the breakup and forget it entirely for something else. By taking on this structure, the film acknowledges a key truth that many romance films neglect: these characters have their own lives and concerns totally separate from each other. Again, this is a benefit of Them’s origin as two unique films, even if it means that some plot threads surely get lost in translation. Ultimately, Eleanor Rigby, even as it benefits in some ways from being condensed, probably works better as two separate films.