I made a point of saying in my review of Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her that these films cannot be considered independently of one another – director Ned Benson had written and structured them around each other and, in that choice, needed to be able to make both films work standalone whilst also being able to necessitate the existence of the other narrative, having them feed into one another. The premise of the narrative and structural format of the film was greatly promising and is what drew me, and what will undoubtedly draw many others, to the film. However, as evidenced by the final product of both Him and Her, it is a deceivingly difficult task that requires a director with an assured voice to carry through the subtleties that need to exist between the films while also drawing out the differences in the two character’s internal lives, and bring that to screen through the acting and dialogue. The sad truth of this is that while I thoroughly enjoyed Her, I was hugely disappointed with Him, both as a stand alone film, but also because it failed to live up the promises and expectations that Her had left me with. This is Ned Benson’s debut feature, and while I can give a nod to his high aspirations, it reeks of imitation and cliché and the script is perhaps only saved by the performances from the impressive cast, including Chastain and McAvoy, but also Isabelle Huppert, William Hurt, Ciaran Hinds and Viola Davis.
Not to transform this review into an end of year report card, but what I saw much too much of in the films was potential. Sometimes, recognising the intended goals of a director can encourage leniency on the part of those that see where it could’ve gone, but the films were simply disappointing in the combined viewing of Her and Him because it just seemed so unnecessary. The question I keep asking myself, and am growing frustrated by, is why was this told in two parts? Yes, it is an interesting structural format, but the primary problems in both films, particularly in Him regarding dialogue and characterisation, seem to be the product of Benson’s attempt to flesh out stories in too much space, where he could of developed the characters of Eleanor and Conor more sparingly but effectively through tighter dialogue. Moreover, it feels as if the attention placed on the ultimately very minor or ineffective differences in the two films such as changes in the dialogue in repeated scenes or the different costuming seemed to only distract Benson from developing what is crucial this story, which is the emotional lives of this couple, as they exist together, but also as individuals.
Examples of the film’s frustrating dialogue, that was much more present in Him than Her, include the continued reference to ‘disappearing’. The word is in the title, and is repeated at least 3 times, just in case we didn’t quite understand that Chastain’s Eleanor needed to leave and be alone. Other heavy-handed and clichéd dialogue included gems such as “when there’s a shooting star, aren’t you glad to have seen it at least once”, and “life is full of probablys”. Where there were instances of obvious dialogue in Her, it felt less conspicuous simply due to the powers of Chastain as an actor, but also because the relationship dynamics in Her between Eleanor and her sister (Jess Weixler) and parents (Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt), and also her teacher Lillian, played with such cynical charm by Viola Davis, had more warmth and authenticity than the somewhat forced interactions of McAvoy and the supporting cast of Him. This isn’t to undermine the great performances of Ciaran Hinds and Bill Hader as Conor’s father and friend, but the issue of Conor’s character is that you don’t care as much about him as you do Eleanor, despite him being the more open character on the page. This simply comes down to the poor characterisation of Conor who we don’t sympathise with because we don’t understand his motivation. He flits between a romantic, an arsehole and a tormented husband, but rather than speaking to emotional complexity, it just reads as scattered and frustrating for the audience.
The conceptual promise of revealing both perspectives of a struggling marriage is strong, but I feel that Benson bit off much more than he could chew and in doing that, took what could’ve been a really strong single feature in Her, with a few changes to the script, and made an overly ambitious two-part feature Her and Him. Where Him differs greatly from Her is in the tone and pacing of the film. Him is much shorter, and feels as if it simply exists to fill in the gaps in information left in Her, particularly in scenes at their home and in the hospital, but fail to provide a further depth that would have complemented Her. These filler scenes were perfunctory and poorly scripted, and ultimately detracted from what was left unknown in Her. Had I known that the small plot points that I’d been left wondering about in Her would be so poorly revived in Him, I would have been far less enthusiastic to encourage audiences to see Him. Him has none of the poetic effusion of nostalgia and melancholy that Chastain performs brilliantly to, and instead trades that in for a blue-tinged attempt at realism that falls short and instead keeps the audience at a distance.
The camerawork of the two films is reflective of this tonal shift, and while this does feel like an active decision to characterise the film aesthetically to each lead, the use of handheld camera in Him is at times unwatchable. The choice to open with a memory in Him, again feels like an active attempt to personalise the film and speak to each character’s exercise in memory, but this heavy-handed romanticism feels at odds to the pragmatist, man on a mission story of Conor that fails to establish how he’s come to this point in his life. The decision to edit Her with an orange tint, and Him with a blue sounds interesting on paper, and managed to be subtle enough in Her, but was just absurd in Him. The blue tint meant that scenes were suddenly too many shades darker than it should be, but also became comical when blue became omnipresent in the sets of the film and in the costuming. A little subtlety and restraint was all that was needed here. The film does deal with the death of a child, but fails to engage with that in any meaningful way in Him and when it attempts to, it feels more like a study into the mind of grief, rather than the heart of it. Despite having 2 films dedicated to how parents and a married couple respond to this trauma, the film falls short of another film on the topic of marriage and losing a child, Felix van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown, which manages to do all that Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her intended but in a single feature, and with incredible gut-wrenching complexity of character and emotion.
Funnily enough, Harvey Weinstein’s distribution of the picture means its been cut and condensed the Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them 1, which frustrating brings up the question again of why there wasn’t a single picture to begin with. It is my genuine belief that had Benson merely placed the effort he took to write and shoot Him, into refining Her, it would have been a much more successful film. The release of Them, in that case won’t really address any of the problems I had with the films to begin with, but a part of me wants to believe that somehow a great job at editing could solve all this film’s problems and bring to light it’s potential, but deep down I know it can’t. It would have been an easier task to review this film favorably had I not been hopeful about the premise of the film and it’s attempt to create a Rashomon-esque romantic drama exploring memory and marriage, or if Her had not been as promising as it was. High aspirations by Ned Benson, meant that even it’s strong performances could not redeem what is sadly a familiar story written poorly and filmed poorly, but will nonetheless dazzle audiences, as I suspect it did at festivals, with the promise of its premise and structure, as well as it’s cast, but even that just couldn’t cut it for me.
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