One day she's lying in a hospital bed, the next she's gone. She's the title character of "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby," and her husband, Conor, will spend much of the movie tracking her down, losing her again and, like us, wondering whether the love of his life will ever return.
Ned Benson's debut feature attempts the impossible -- making us care about two lovers caught in an agonizing holding pattern -- and succeeds. Credit goes partly to the achingly raw performances of the film's two stars, Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, but also to Benson's skill and sensitivity as a filmmaker. In most romantic movies, the will-they-won't-they moment takes up just a couple of minutes, but "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby" stretches it into an exquisitely emotional and heart-wrenching two hours.
The movie unfolds like a mystery: Who or what has broken this marriage? Backstories emerge slowly. We meet Eleanor's well-heeled, cosmopolitan parents, an American professor and a French violinist (William Hurt and Isabelle Huppert, both excellent), and Conor's enigmatic father (Ciarán Hinds), whose New York City restaurant is doing much better than his son's. Why have the Rigbys shunned Conor? Why does he treat Eleanor so gingerly, like a wounded animal? What is the terrible secret that everyone knows but refuses to mention?
Benson's characters occasionally seem over-eloquent; their personal stories tend to sound like fully formed short fiction. The best scenes come when the actors speak to each other, not to us. Viola Davis is particularly good as Professor Friedman, a new acquaintance who senses Eleanor's distress but hasn't earned the right to probe. She's also the only person who dares to make a Beatles joke.
Another, longer version of "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby," subtitled "Him/Her" and told from the protagonists' differing perspectives, is due in theaters next month, but this version feels about right. It isn't telling a story so much as creating a feeling. If there's a third character in this film, it's that delicate, elusive thing called love.
PLOT After a traumatic event, a wife all but vanishes from her husband's life.
CAST Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, Viola Davis
PLAYING AT Area theaters
BOTTOM LINE A delicate and ephemeral romance