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Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy’s ‘Eleanor Rigby’ Is a Beautiful Movie – But Does it Measure Up to the Original Version?

Cannes 2014: Director Ned Benson unveils a new, trimmed-down version of a bold two-part drama that screened in Toronto last year

Ned Benson’s lovely drama “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” was one of the few competition films that came to Cannes this year as a known quantity – but the film, which premiered at Toronto last September to rapturous reviews and was immediately picked up by the Weinstein Company, also came in with a huge question mark hanging over it.

That’s because the Toronto “Eleanor Rigby” was actually two movies that screened back-to-back. One was subtitled “Him,” and told the story of a marriage fracturing after a tragedy from the perspective of the character played by James McAvoy. The other, subtitled “Her,” told the same story from the perspective of Jessica Chastain‘s character, with some of the same scenes playing out slightly differently depending on whose version we were seeing.

I loved “Eleanor Rigby” with a passion in Toronto, and found it one of the most powerful experiences of that festival. I talked to Chastain, Benson and producer Cassandra Kulukundis before the film was sold, and we all took one fact as a given: They had to find a distributor with the nerve to release it as two movies rather than trying to cut it to one.

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So when I saw that it was coming to Cannes as a single film – albeit one whose fall release will be followed several weeks later by the release of the “Him” and “Her” versions – I was scared. The emotional alchemy that takes place as the two movies play off each other is extraordinary, and I couldn’t see a single film giving that experience, no matter how expertly assembled it was.

And now that the work the filmmakers are calling the “Them” version of “Eleanor Rigby” had its world premiere on Saturday night in the Un Certain Regard section, I can report that the new version is a wonderful film, touching and amusing and in the end deeply moving.

And I can also report that if I had my druthers, everybody should see “Him” and “Her” instead.

Obviously, though, the market is much bigger for a single, romantic, emotional two-hour Jessica Chastain/James McAvoy movie than for a bolder and more experimental excursion that plays out over three hours and 10 minutes. That’s the reality of the business, and I suppose we should rejoice that Weinstein will give the original versions a shot after establishing the new one.

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At a two-hour running time, the “Them” version of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” is a testament to the power of a simple, rich story well told. More straightforward and less of a puzzle than the original versions, it nonetheless builds a mystery around why Chastain’s title character disappears, before casually dropping hints well into the film.

Taken on its own terms – and I admit that it’s not easy for me to do that – the film is an understated, witty, amusing and heartfelt look at wounds that may never heal, and how they can make it impossible to put lives back together.

And it builds to a beautiful, heartbreaking climax, with marvelous scenes from Ciaran Hinds and William Hurt as McAvoy’s and Chastain’s fathers, respectively, and a wrenching one between the two leads.

Chastain and McAvoy are both remarkable, but one drawback to the new version is that it doesn’t let supporting players like Hinds, Jess Weixler and Isabelle Huppert to shine as much as they did in the original versions, where they all had more screen time. (But Viola Davis‘ role didn’t seem to be cut much, and she just about steals the show as a caustic professor.)

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“Eleanor Rigby” deserves real praise, not backhanded praise. But the memory of “Him” and “Her” is too strong for me to completely shake off – and while I walked out of the theater thinking that Benson had done an exemplary job of making the two films into one, I could also name half-a-dozen indelible moments that I remembered and missed.

And I don’t think the filmmakers themselves would disagree. At a party before the premiere, I talked to Chastain, who told me she was happy with the “Them” version but admitted, “My heart is with ‘Him’ and ‘Her.'”

After the premiere, I saw her again and told her that “Them” was beautiful, but my heart, too, was with “Him” and “Her.” “Of course,” she said with a smile.

Kulukundis said her favorite analogy is that the two original versions are like a book, and “Them” is like the movie adaptation that necessarily loses some of the things you love in the book, even though it stands on its own.

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So to the Weinstein Company, I’ll just say this: The version of “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” that you’re planning to release on September 26 is a wonderful movie, and everybody concerned should be proud of it.

But please, please don’t shortchange the two movies you bought at Toronto, because “Him” and “Her” seen back-to-back go beyond being a wonderful movie to become an extraordinary cinematic and emotional experience.