Monday, 26 January 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)

I was pleased indeed to obtain tickets for the preview of this film which opens here soon, since the concept is more than a little intriguing and the movie has been nominated for 13 Academy Awards. I will stick my neck out up front and predict that it will not win any of the major prizes -- best film, best director (David Fincher), best actor (Brad Pitt), or best supporting actress, but I would expect it to do well in the various technical categories. Whether or not it wins best screenplay from a previously published source remains to be seen, since this film manages to expand into nearly three hours with a far wider timescale and focus than the very, very short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, written as a bedtime fantasy for his young daughter.

The film is very good and certainly worth seeing, but it is not without its flaws, primarily its very leisurely approach and the extra long framing device of Cate Blanchett dying in hospital as Hurricaine Katrina approaches New Orleans and very slowly relaying Benjamin's story to her daughter. First criticism: she may be dying but this is no excuse for her dialogue to be mumbled and barely intelligible. Against this, Blanchett is fine as Pitt's lifelong love Daisy from her prima ballerina days through her older persona. There is also a second pair of bookends about a blind clockmaker who builds a clock that runs backwards, which while very interesting is actually unrelated to the story here, although a nice counterpoint. As probably everyone now knows the story follows Pitt's character from the time he is born as a wizened old-man baby; it chronicles his growth backwards, through middle age and youth until he finally regresses into infancy. The special effects which allow Pitt to play all of these parts (other than the late childhood ones) are seamlessly done and certainly will deserve Academy recognition.

This film does succeed, but I think on different levels than those intended. There is a lovely interlude when the elderly Pitt begins an affair in Russia with a bored and spoiled Tilda Swinton -- probably another embroidery on the Fitzgerald bare bones; how this story finishes itself many years later is nearly a throwaway thread, albeit a very satisfying one. However, despite the occasional misplaced humour (like the old geezer who keeps telling Pitt about the seven times he was struck by lightning), this is really a film about loss. It's not just the lost love of Pitt and Blanchett which can only fulfil itself in their middle years before she gets too old and he gets too young, but the loss of our various loved ones as their alloted time passes. There are an uncanny number of deaths in the film as it plays itself out and ultimately the movie is a sad one. It does not celebrate life so much as it reminds us that time and tide are our overriding masters, that we are ruled by incalculable and merciless circumstance.
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