As Oliver Lyttelton puts it at the Playlist, the sheer “existence of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby is one of the strangest things in recent American cinema.” We turn to the Hollywood Reporter‘s Deborah Young to bring us up to speed: “Originally unveiled at the Toronto film festival in a 191 minute version that was novelly divided into two parts called Him and Her and told from two different perspectives, Ned Benson’s accomplished all-star feature debut screened in the Certain Regard section in a brand new 123 minute cut entitled The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them. Shedding 68 minutes of running time makes a hefty difference in the way the story is told and how it feels to watch it.” This new version will be “released Stateside by The Weinstein Company at the end of September. It is also a far more conventional film and, as it turns out, a much less fascinating journey with the characters. More committed audiences would do well to invest in the whole shebang when the full two-part film finds limited art house release later in the fall.”
But for Variety‘s Scott Foundas, “what’s been lost in girth and conceptual framework has arguably been gained in narrative clarity and emotional resonance.” In the original Her, “Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) retreated to the Connecticut home of her artist-intellectual parents (William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert) following a suicide attempt. In Him, Eleanor’s abandoned husband, Conor (James McAvoy), tried to track down his missing wife while coping with the failing fortunes of his restaurant business. Only occasionally in each film did the two characters share the screen, which made it all the more impressive that one emerged from the double bill with a sense of the full arc of a complex relationship—a particular credit to Chastain and McAvoy, who both delivered some of the best work of their careers as the wounded lovers wondering if they might ever again make themselves whole. Benson’s recut understandably keeps those shared moments front and center, which has the effect of making things at once more conventional and more gripping, while cutting back on the secondary characters: Eleanor’s parents, sister (Jess Weixler) and Cooper Union ‘identity theory’ professor (Viola Davis); Conor’s friends and co-workers (Bill Hader, Nina Arianda) and a father (the wonderful Ciaran Hinds) himself just divorced from wife number three.”
“Them is an attempt to tell the story as an equitable narrative for both characters, but it is clearly still driven by Eleanor’s heartache and emotional journey,” finds Gregory Ellwood at HitFix.
The Guardian‘s Xan Brooks notes that the catalyst of the couple’s separation is “the sudden death of their infant son. I couldn’t shake the sense they would have been better off apart…. While Benson treats his characters with care and respect, his depiction of grief can feel studied and not felt. Much of the dialogue is very on the nose. ‘Tragedy is a foreign country,’ murmurs Eleanor’s dad. ‘It isn’t your job to investigate the vast expanse of the past,’ Conor’s dad advises him. The film’s supporting players function as a kind of ongoing Greek chorus.”
“If only the other characters contributed more sooner,” writes Adam Woodward for Little White Lies. “There’s a sublime moment late on where William Hurt, playing Eleanor’s father, opens up to her about an incident from her childhood in which he came close to losing her. It’s a tender scene, and Hurt smashes it, but it’s virtually the only thing he’s given to do. Likewise Isabelle Huppert’s mother, forever sloshing a glass of wine about, is distant to the point of vacancy. Of course, it’s perfectly rational that Eleanor’s parents should behave this way around her—they’ve lost a grandchild, and losing a daughter on top of that would be unthinkable. It’s just a shame to see such a splendid support cast used so sparingly.”
Back to Oliver Lyttelton, who finds that Benson lets “scenes play out unintrusively, capturing NYC with a woozy beauty, and generally showing that he has an excellent eye (on the evidence of this, The Bling Ring and Night Moves, Christopher Blauveldt is fast becoming one of the best rising cinematographers out there).”
“Them, as a stand-alone movie, works well enough, and utilizes its leads’ slightly elfin charms to excellent effect,” writes Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed. “But it’s Him and Her that retain the possibility of something truly unusual, and that are worth lining up to see in the fall.”
For those who don’t mind spoilers, Nikola Grozdanovic explains at Indiewire why she gives Him and Her a collective A while Them scores a B-.
Update, 5/21: “Ultimately, Benson’s Eleanor Rigby disappears into the gap between its rom-com and drama stools,” finds John Bleasdale at CineVue.