Let me explain the title: this movie was originally screened at last year's Toronto International Film Festival as two separate, full-length films: The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her, each of which showed the story from one of the characters’ perspectives. When Harvey Weinstein got interested in distributing the film, he had it cut into one movie—Them—and that's the version most people will probably see.

All three films are about a marriage gone sour, but not in a way that lends itself to being one partner’s “fault” so much as the fault of the universe or, for some people, God. It is a story of grief.

Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy in 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them'
Image: The Weinstein Company

Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy in 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them'

Eleanor Rigby—named after her parents failed to see the Beatles but met one another—leaves her husband, Conor (James McAvoy), after calmly leaping off a bridge into the East River. Returning home to live with her parents, Eleanor chafes against being observed by her family (and not surprisingly: her father is a college professor and a psychologist). Meanwhile, Conor is back in New York City, trying to save his marriage and his tiny, failing restaurant.

The film (this version anyhow) wants to be about identity, and what happens when the things that propped yours up get stripped away. Eleanor—who has spent her life explaining her name—enrolls in a class on identity theory at Cooper Union, taught by a tough, warm professor who becomes a friend (Viola Davis); Conor flees their apartment to move back in with his father temporarily and wonders if he wants to fill his shoes; Eleanor’s mother (Isabelle Huppert) tells her in so many words that Eleanor’s personal tragedies could function as an escape hatch, letting her avoid her mother’s life choices. At least twice, characters ask, “Do I seem like a different person to you?”

It plays like the slow, sad movement of a symphony, one preceded by a lighter theme and followed by the charged conclusion where all shall be renewed. And I could watch Chastain (for whom the adjective “luminous” seems to have been invented) and McAvoy do anything for hours, but especially play these characters. But if you watch and wonder why in the end it feels a little empty, the problem may lie in the idea implicit in the form shift.

I haven't seen Him and Her yet (though I'm itching together now), but from what I understand, the original films played on the fact that memory does not always match reality, or, more accurately, when we talk about reality in relationships all we really have is memory to go on. So we see both sides of the story, but the shared scenes differ slightly between the two films. Jessica Chastain explained to the New York Daily News that “it was like creating two different characters. In Her I play Eleanor Rigby, but in Him I play Conor’s perception of Eleanor Rigby.”

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Jessica Chastain and Viola Davis in 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them'
Image: The Weinstein Company

Jessica Chastain and Viola Davis in 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them'

That’s intriguing, and also accurate. Partners' recollection of events don’t always match. Anyone who's been married or in an intimate long-term relationship of any kind knows that rarely, if ever, is a disagreement or conflict or fight one person's fault. You remember she said it one way; she remembers it another way. You have been accumulating a litany of slights; he doesn't recall committing any of them. He said. She said. You said. I said.

Rarely, actually, is it "they" said. Or “we” said.

The hard work of relationships is in growing to accept, first, that you will sometimes be misunderstood, and second, that your interpretations of others' actions is often a shade off the truth, and sometimes entirely wrong, and sometimes you don't even remember the actions correctly. It is a sobering thing to accept that your recollection—even if it is accurate—is not sufficient grounds for winning an argument or reasoning toward resolution.

The Him/Her version apparently acknowledges this (something Ken Morefield wrote about when he reported from TIFF), inserting those slightly different versions of shared events into both movies, though it leaves the audience to realize this without the characters discovering it. Ken wrote:

They pointed to emotional truth: we all see the world—including others' behavior—through the interpretive lens of our own experience. If the film had allowed the characters to realize that for themselves and learn how to deal with that reality instead of being trapped in it, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and Her easily could have found a way on my end-of-year top ten list.

In the Them version of the film, though, we get a movie which doesn't trust its viewers to get what's going on—or, perhaps reasonably, to devote time to watching both. The result is a film that steadfastly presents one version of events: these things happened, that person said those things. It happened this way.

In cinema, we're conditioned to believe that the camera gives us the unaltered version of the events of the story. Some filmmakers play on this, startling us by showing that the camera has been lying to us, giving us a character's mind's-eye rather than actual events—consider, for instance, A Beautiful Mind or Shutter Island.

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James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain in 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them'
Image: The Weinstein Company

James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain in 'The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them'

In Them, then, that one version of events functions as the version of events, uncontradicted by the various viewpoints (and so one character comes out quite a bit worse than the other). That could be fine (it's certainly the basis for most movies on similar subjects), but the result is a serviceable, occasionally lovely film about sadness, grief, and marriage that doesn’t get to the bigger issue. So it is unrelentingly sad, but so unrelentingly that it winds up not selling its conclusion.

Given the film's stars, it was probably a wise business decision to cut together Them. It’s easier to show the shorter film and to get audiences to buy a ticket. But I'm disappointed, because the result is a movie that bypasses its original conceit—exploring the grey areas that rule, and sometimes destroy, most relationships—and that means what we have is a somewhat uneven but more conventional grief-stricken romance, and the performances here deserved better.

So, sure, if you're inclined, see Them. The exploration of grief will, as they say, make you "feel all the feels,” and it is never a chore to watch these actors. The movie is sad and, occasionally, devastating, but not without hope. But if you like it at all—and I did—then clamor for Her and Him (I plan to), because the real fruit lies in that question.

Caveat Spectator

The film is rated R for profanity and sexuality. There’s a fair amount of profanity of all sorts and some frank talk about sex. Characters have sex on different occasions (in a car, in a restaurant), though we don’t see nudity. Eleanor jumps off a bridge, attempting to kill herself. And (spoiler!) the thematic material is probably most important (SPOILER!!!!)—if you've lost a child, then you'll need to think about whether you want to put yourself through that grieving process on screen.

Alissa Wilkinson is CT’s chief film critic and writes the “Watch This Way” blog. She is also an assistant professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in New York City, and she tweets @alissamarie.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them
Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(3 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (For language and sexuality.)
Directed By
Ned Benson
Run Time
2 hours 3 minutes
James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Viola Davis
Theatre Release
September 12, 2014 by The Weinstein Company
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