“Brave” movie performances come in a few varieties, starting with those in which an actor loses or gains weight, or goes without veneers, to add grit to a role.
Compared with Jessica Chastain’s subtle, beautifully realized performance in the terribly titled “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them,” those other performances feel like naked bids for audience love.
Truly daring actors, like Chastain, forgo attempts at winning audience sympathy even when playing inherently sympathetic characters like the emotionally battle-scarred Eleanor in “Them” (the character’s full name is Eleanor Rigby, but this movie is not based on the song, and her naming barely related to the Beatles). Former Sacramentan Chastain plays this woman, who is full of sorrow, as too vulnerable to lay that sorrow bare. So she puts on a brave face, as a lot of people do in real life.
Eleanor laughs, and goes out for coffee, with Chastain offering just enough hints at her character’s true emotional state to leave the audience wanting more, thus turning Eleanor’s eventual breakdown into an emotional release for all.
Eleanor’s pain stems partly from her separation from the man she loves, Conor (James McAvoy), but revealing more would ruin the experience of watching Chastain slowly peel away Eleanor’s layers of self-protection.
With “Them,” Chastain joins the ranks of Cate Blanchett and Meryl Streep. Not as Oscar winners, because she has not won one, but as a rare Hollywood lead actress willing to forgo immediate sympathy for authenticity.
Many European actors go for truth rather than relatability (one of them, Isabelle Huppert, plays Eleanor’s mother in “Them,” and stays true to form when the mother tells her grown daughter she never wanted children), but few American stars risk alienating fans. Even Streep rarely does it anymore, not since she grew older and cuddlier, and beloved instead of admired.
“Them” is among a trio of films being released under the “Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” banner. Director-screenwriter Ned Benson initially made two separate films, designated as “Her” and “Him,” from the points of view of Eleanor and Conor.
After the Weinstein Co. picked up the two films at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival, the studio and Benson merged two films into this one. The original “Her” and “Him” films will be released later this fall, though there is no Sacramento date set.
“Them” does not play as if it were cobbled together. It unfolds gradually, and with intimacy and immediacy, as it chronicles the first blush of romance between Eleanor and Conor and their relationship’s worst days.
Benson cultivates a kind of orchestrated naturalism. The New York City street scenes seem extemporaneous but are not, because Benson clearly has taken too much care, in some scenes, to make background, out-of-focus shots as prominent as foreground, in-focus shots. This conceit suggests that what lies beneath – or behind – is as vital as what is apparent.
The allure of city life informs the early days of Conor’s and Eleanor’s romance, as they dine in, and then dash from, a cozy restaurant, because Conor cannot pay the tab. Laughing all the way, they end up in a public park and in an embrace. This sequence is key because it establishes that Eleanor, who beats Conor out the door of the restaurant by several minutes, will be the first to run when there’s is trouble. And also that Eleanor is capable of great joy.
Eleanor’s bright smiles in this sequence underscore that her shut-down demeanor for most of the film is not her norm, and gets us through those few moments when Chastain becomes too removed, and does not give enough away about her character’s feelings.
Also helpful is the camera’s love for Chastain – striking here in dark eye makeup and an asymmetrical bob – and for Chastain and McAvoy together. The pair share an electric chemistry.
Despite Eleanor’s belief that Conor, a restaurant owner, has closed off parts of himself to her, Conor pursues Eleanor ardently after she leaves him. McAvoy’s open demeanor contrasts with Chastain’s reserve, though Eleanor is far more likely to crack a grin, or joke, in Conor’s presence than in anyone else’s.
Eleanor, a part-time college student, is staying with her parents, leading to lovely moments with her truth-telling yet loving classical-musician mother and warm professor dad (William Hurt). She also forms a tentative friendship with her unfailingly honest, witty college professor, who is played by the reliably great Viola Davis.
Conor has more going on, as a business owner and the son of a famous New York City restaurateur (Ciaran Hinds) in whose big shadow he inevitably resides. Yet Benson, even in the merged version, is seemingly, and understandably, more drawn to Chastain’s layers and captivating screen presence.
The title says “Them,” but it’s still mostly her.