Posted by: Dr P | March 3, 2009

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Barely a few weeks ago, I wrote about the harrowing range of emotions evoked by one of 2009’s superior films, Slumdog Millionaire. I emerged battered and bruised from that movie, which tugged at my heartstrings one moment, and stomped all over them the next. To say that The Curious Case of Benjamin Button evokes similar feelings does it some disservice, for this might just outshine Slumdog in my affections.

The premise of the film is weird, yet wonderful. A child is born horribly disfigured and, to all intents and purposes, with all the afflictions of old age – withered skin, decayed bones, a whole range of internal problems. His mother dies in childbirth and his father abandons him on the steps of a local care home where he is taken in by the black serving girl Queeny. Despite being diagnosed with only a short time to live, the boy – now named Benjamin – starts to slow gradual improvement, to the astonishment of everyone, and actually appears to be growing younger.

In outward appearance, the young boy Benjamin looks like an old man, and yet he is barely a child emotionally. He befriends many of the people who live at the home, and its array of visitors. In particular he is instantly taken with Daisy, a girl several years his junior whose grandmother is a visitor. It is love at first sight for both of them, yet because of the many differences, nothing can happen.

As the years run their course, Benjamin starts to change and it is clear to everyone that he is getting younger. His hair thickens, his body strengthens and he begins to experience the first flush of adolescence. It is around this time that his father discovers his son is still alive, and befriends him again whilst not revealing his identity. Benjamin is soon strong enough to travel and as he turns 17, he decides to leave home and seek his fortune on the seas as a tugboat hand. This devastates Daisy, and is, I believe, a catalyst for her own change while I’ll touch on later.

Whilst much of the story is of course told through Benjamin’s eyes, it is presented as the recollections of Daisy, now on her death bed and revealing the story to her own daughter (Julia Ormond). The continual change from Benjamin’s perspective to the modern-day conflict and conversation between Daisy and her daughter, is a great way to frame the story.

As time passes, we see Benjamin caught up in many of the great changes of the 20th Century – we see him embroiled in the second world war, the hard years of the 1950s, the Beatles, hippydom, the emerging space race, and much more besides. The life of Button is inextricably linked to the developing world, and we see his youth and vigour stregthen even as Daisy passes through her adult life and begins to weaken herself.

There are so many tough issues that this film deals with, and I can’t even begin to touch on all the emotions it evoked. Love, laughter, hatred, despair, longing, sorrow, tragedy, utter joy, and pits of despair. For two and a half hours I sat utterly riveted to this movie, alternately laughing out loud and crying unashamedly. Issues of loss were heart-rending and yet beautifully dealt with, but for me it was the smaller details.

When Benjamin wrote a postcard outlining his sorrow that he couldn’t attend his child’s first day at school I wept, for this happened to me too, and it’s something that can not be recreated or recaptured. Parental loss and the way that was portrayed was both beautiful and poignant, yet horrible too. Benjamin makes peace with his father and takes him to his favourite place to die – as the first rays of sunlight climb over the horizon and touch his father’s face, his life ends. It is an incredibly beautiful moment, and yet the sense of loss is all too stark.

The relationship between Daisy and Benjamin obviously provides the beating heart of the film, and it too is a rollercoaster of emotion. The children love unconditionally, yet when Benjamin goes off on his first adventure, the devastation this wreaks on Daisy leads her to spiral out of control and, to my mind, she becomes harsh and unpleasant. She seeks fame and fortune as a dancer, and yet when her path crosses Benjamin’s later, she treats him cruelly and without any apparent outward love. However, when Benjamin leaves her again, she is heartbroken. It’s a curious thing but I never truly warmed to her character at all – self absorbed and selfish much of the time, and yet also capable of much love and affection. Whatever the intention, she still made an absorbing foil for Benjamin’s affections, and is immaculately acted by Cate Blanchett.

Their paths finally reunite in their middle years. Benjamin by now is in his prime and Daisy is at peace with herself, and so their love can run its true course. But of course they cannot grow old together, as for Benjamin this means becoming an old man in the body of a young child, and – ultimately – a baby. Benjamin decides to leave at this point, completing the cycle of his own abandonment, and yet he is insistent that Daidy find herself a new love and someone who can be a father to their child. It’s another devastating moment.

Their paths do cross again in a moment I really didn’t like (and won’t spoil), but then later When Daisy sees Benjamin as a young child in the throes of dementia, forgetting who she is or anything about his life, it is another heart-rending scene. And yet, right to the heartbreaking end, she is there, devoting her life to his.

There are hundreds of other moments I would like to relay but it would spoil too much. There are moments of great levity and joy (the lightning strike man in particular), we see Brad Pitt at his absolute best, both in looks and acting terms (ladies, the scene on the bike … wow!), and we see the realisation of a world both majestic and cruel.

The film is a joy. Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are wonderful as the principal characters, and the make-up, effects and cinematography are unparalleled. It is a technical tour-de-force as we see the characters age (both ways) and change so much. Yet effects alone do not make a movie. The beating heart of the film is its humanity, its simple story of love and desire and fury and anger and despair and hope and triumph over all adversity. It will rightly win many awards, and in a year in which we have already seen such emotionally challenging films as Slumdog and The Wrestler, for me this just about edges ahead as my favourite movie. It’s compelling from start to finish, and I, for one, cannot wait to see it again.

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