‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them’: A sad story worth seeing

SHARE ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them’: A sad story worth seeing
SHARE ‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them’: A sad story worth seeing

James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain in “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.” | THE WEINSTEIN CO.

Ghosts are lurking everywhere in the “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby.”

Not the kind of movie ghosts that show up suddenly in the bathroom mirror in a horror film, or haunt the basement of a recently restored 19th century country house in one of those “inspired by true events” scare-fests.

These ghosts are still alive. They get up every day, they try to go about their business, but they’re shells of their former selves, unable to break free from the tragedy and disappointments of their lives.

‘The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them’

“The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them” is one of three versions of the same story about Conor (James McAvoy) and Elle (Jessica Chastain) a youngish married couple in New York City who are destroyed by a personal tragedy.

Writer-director Ned Benson created two feature-length films, telling the same series of events from a different viewpoint. There’s “Him,” told from Conor’s point of view, and “Her,” with the same events as filtered through the lens of Elle’s perspective. But first we’re getting “Them,” an amalgamation of the “Him”/“Her” films.

Even though we’re trafficking in mostly melancholy territory about lost souls trying to regain their footing, it says something about the tender artistry of the filmmaking, and the beautiful work by the actors, that I’m actually keen to spend more time with these characters and see this story unfold from different perspectives.

The luminous and ever-photogenic Jessica Chastain, who would be a movie star in any era, is Eleanor Rigby, aka Elle. We learn her father’s last name is actually Rigby, and yes, she was named after the Beatles song, and who does that to their daughter? Who names their child after one of the saddest songs ever written, a song that keeps asking, “All the lonely people, where do they all come from?”

Her artsy, intellectual parents, that’s who.

Elle’s father Julian (William Hurt, and why isn’t William Hurt in more movies?) is a professor and psychiatrist, and her mother Mary (Isabelle Huppert) is a French-born musician who once played second violin for the Boston Pops. After everything in Elle’s life goes flying off the rails, she leaves Conor and comes to stay with her parents (and her younger sister and the sister’s little boy) in their perfectly appointed Colonial home in Westport, Connecticut.

Meanwhile, Conor is drowning in New York — struggling to keep his small restaurant/bar afloat, in a constant funk over Elle’s disappearance, and butting heads with his father Spencer (Ciaran Hinds), a legendary restaurateur whose idea of advice is to tell his son it’s folly to wallow in the past or indulge in regrets of any kind.

These are not happy people.

At times Benson’s screenplay is too self-aware by a note or two. On more than one occasion, a character says something along the lines of, “I don’t even know what you’re talking about right now,” and we don’t need that line because we’re thinking the same thing. Or someone will comment on what they’ve just said. Again, unnecessary.

But it’s easy to forgive those transgressions because much of the dialogue is so heartbreakingly on point, at times approaching the poetic. Nearly every character in this film is really, really smart, and interesting, something of a mess — and aware life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans, to quote a song John Lennon wrote long after the Beatles broke up.

You won’t find many films with such a wealth of pinpoint fine performances. Chastain’s fellow cast member from “The Help,” Viola Davis, is a professor who befriends Elle. In just a few scenes, we feel like we know the professor’s life story.

Huppert strikes all the right notes as Elle’s mother, who always has a glass of wine in her hand and freely admits she never wanted to be a mother — and yet she’s hardly a monster. She loves in her own way. Bill Hader kills it as Conor’s best friend. William Hurt is as good as he’s ever been in a scene where he reveals something to Elle he’s never told anyone.

But this is the story of Elle and Conor. McAvoy’s character is the more sympathetic of the two, at least in this version of “Eleanor Rigby.” Conor’s a good guy, a loyal friend, and he knew what he had in Elle. We understand why he’s willing to take some pretty extreme steps to reconnect with her. This is some of the best work McAvoy has ever done.

Chastain has been given a role any actress would love to play: a part requiring her to be funny, sexy, heartbroken, lost, angry, you name it. One can imagine a young Meryl Streep playing this role. One can’t imagine any of Ms. Chastain’s contemporaries bettering the work she delivers here. It is one of the best performances by an actress so far this year.

The Weinstein Co. presents a film written and directed by Ned Benson. Running time: 123 minutes. Rated R (for language). Opens Friday at local theaters.

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