The thing that first comes to mind after watching this beautiful film at the Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace Cremorne on opening night of the Sydney Film Festival, is that this film is all about balance. I find it difficult to review this as a stand alone piece because if it were, I would feel as if something was wholly missing and half developed, but in my opinion, it isn’t a piece on its own even if it is its own film. Nonetheless, where the plot feels half-developed (presumably in anticipation of Him, the rest of the film is still worth a watch on its own aesthetic merit and the incredible performances, but I am very excited to see how Her is complemented and hopefully built on in Him. While it’s ideal to see both films to get the full story of Conor and Eleanor’s lives, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her is a strong enough picture to stand alone, bearing in mind the lacking characterisation of Conor, and Benson is definitely an interesting director to watch to see where he goes from the nuanced beauties of this joint feature film.
The first scene sets the entire tone of the film – the camera work is superb, as if you’re drifting into the life and mind of Jessica Chastain’s Eleanor Rigby riding a bike on Manhattan Bridge. Chastain is incredible at saying so much about the interior life of the character without a word, and performs just that in this opening scene, and carries that through with absolute poise, without which the characterisation of Eleanor and the film’s dialogue itself could have felt heavy-handed and clumsy. Everything around her is idyllic as the sun skims the Manhattan skyline, but something is evidently wrong and that’s confirmed when she abandons the bike and jumps off the bridge, disrupting the dream-like opening sequence of the film. This is an apt metaphor for the rest of the film, that brings the audience in and out of memories, and out of lucid, restless moments in the night that are set beautifully to the euphoric soundscapes made by Son Lux, to bright mornings at a train platform, or with sharp cuts to movement in the day-time, pulling us out of nostalgia and into reality.
At the same time this act, and the other moments of disruption in the film are never jarring or shocking, but strangely congruous with the otherwise weightless, more dream-like scenes of the film. Continuing on the idea of balance, which is not only in the two part Her and Him structure of the film, but also in the script and the rhythm of the dialogue. This script rests entirely on the authentic pacing of the dialogue, where a lighthearted conversation or a joke slips absolutely seamlessly, with an equivalence point you can never quite anticipate or hold onto, into a crucial moment of emotional transparency. This happens throughout the film and speaks to Benson’s incredibly crafted script and careful editing, and also to the actors who really prevent this film from falling into indulgence in nostalgia and heavy-handedness.
The scenes between Jess Weixler and Jessica Chastain feel completely natural and offer some of the funniest scenes that remind us all too well of family dynamics, as are the ones between McAvoy and Chastain, ground the film and pull it back to something incredibly heartfelt and real when it feels as if its at risk of wandering too far off. The script is incredibly well written and its scenes echo and complement earlier exchanges, particularly in the interplay of memory and reality, that bear uncanny resemblance to how we can suddenly be pulled back into a memory in the most banal moments, yet the film does it with ease that keeps it from feeling like an adapted Nicholas Sparks novel. The film’s dreamy aesthetic is achieved with great cinematography, that makes use of spring in New York incredibly well, with the effective light touch of an orange hue and shallow depth of field.
The film is refreshing and familiar in its themes but treated in such a way by Ned Benson that it feels unique yet also strongly personally resonant due to the quality of the script, direction and acting working together. But this is a two-part feature and I am eager to see if Him delivers on the promises of Her, which left a lot wanting, in the best way possible, for its companion film.