The theme of grief prevails in this love story about the once happily married couple Conor (James McAvoy) and Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them. The disparate ways in which Conor and Eleanor handle their bereavement after a tragedy is the central conflict of the story; their grief tears them apart and the couple separates. This grief is the catalyst that drives the narrative forward, and it is also the elephant in the room. The tragedy is unspeakable — literally — neither Conor nor Eleanor are able to speak about the death of their young child.
It is never revealed exactly how or when their child died, or if anyone was at fault. This was a deliberate choice writer/director Ned Benson made when developing this story.
Not detailing the when, how or why, in a screenplay can be risky. There are pros and cons to this type of choice; some readers might feel that they have been cheated while others might feel satisfied. The bottom line is this: The risk can be lessened if your characters are well-developed and their motivations for their actions and attitudes towards each other are clear.
Following the screening of The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them at the Paris Theater in New York City on September 13, there was a Q & A with the two leads, James McAvoy and Jessica Chastain, moderated by film critic Thelma Adams.
I asked Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy about Ned Benson’s choice not to reveal what happened to the couple’s child.
McAvoy: “Benson wanted the film to be about two people healing and carrying on after a tragedy. The film would not be any greater knowing the cause of death.”
Chastain: “I’m grateful Ned Benson didn’t expand upon it. I saw Eleanor as a wounded animal; if the animal is hurt they’re going to bite you. For Eleanor, the only way she can survive is to move forward. Sometimes you just can’t talk about the grief. For her, if she talks about it, she’s back in the water.”
Leaving the question to what happened to their son unanswered, was a thought-provoking decision for writer/director Ned Benson, but a satisfying choice for both Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, who concluded his response to my question, “Life happens in life.”