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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

February 9, 2009

As Hurricane Katrina crackles away outside, an elderly woman, Daisy (Cate Blanchett, unrecognisably old) recounts her life story to her daughter. Central to her tale is the journal of her lover, one Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt), ‘born under unusual circumstances’ in New Orleans on the last day of the Great War.

Benjamin is born as an old man, a withered, arthritic little soul, surely not long for this world. He is accepted into the old people’s home upon whose steps his appalled father has left him, and it is expected that he will die before too long. To everyone’s astonishment, he survives and begins to grow into a bent-double, almost crippled creature; a curio, if you like. Loved by all because of his gentle nature, he becomes part of the old timers’ routines and, as his legs strengthen and his back straightens, it seems that Benjamin is growing younger, as he gets older.

At a party when he is in his teens, but looking more ‘sprightly sixties’, he meets a very young Daisy, who is intrigued by him, and that’s the essence of the tale. Very quickly you realise that the two are destined – at some point or points – to coincide. And so the film divides, mostly following Benjamin as he joins a tug-boat crew, goes to sea and heads out into the world, but never forgetting Daisy, keeping tabs on her career as a dancer.

It is a carefully constructed picaresque tale, because it has to be, because yes, it is so delicately but determinedly contrived; and so it rolls on, detailing the lives and loves of two people who, despite different experiences and time frames, manage to harmonise beautifully for brief periods, but ever-watchful of the fateful moment when the harmonies will begin to pull apart and discord take its place.

And that is the whole point of the exercise. Throughout, Benjamin encounters love and affection, but in equal measure this is taken from him as everyone moves in the opposite direction, grow old and die. Benjamin is of course running out of time, himself. As he gets younger and younger, and throws off the restraints and limits of old age, becomes a tall and handsome man, it seems impossible to imagine that he hasn’t been given a wonderful gift, but of course it is far from that. Even at his happiest, he and Daisy are forced to recognise that their time together is fleeting. There are countless images and symbols thrown in to emphasise how time flies, that it doesn’t matter how you approach things, because time will always catch you out.

Toward the end, Benjamin revisits Daisy in her fifties. Pitt is spookily young here, younger than he was in Thelma & Louise or Johnny Suede, and yet it is heartbreakingly sad, for it is this youth that is disillusioned by Daisy’s encroaching old age.

There is much to admire, but also a great deal that may not be to everyone’s taste. There is certainly a vein of mawkish sentimentality that runs through the piece, and perhaps a little too much layering-on of the tempus fugit symbolism. But Fincher is too clever a director to allow that to derail his film. It is never less than fascinating to see Benjamin change seamlessly as he ages, to see the wrinkles vanish and the body strengthen. You feel the pain of his and Daisy’s loss as they criss-cross once too often, you buy into the entire feel of the movie.

There are, inevitably, links to other movies; Forrest Gump most obviously, written as it is by the same man, Eric Roth, and featuring a vaguely similar blank-slate oddity to whom weird and extraodinary things happen as the whole swathe of human history in the Twentieth Century fizzes away in the background. The difference is that whereas Gump was a genuine attention-grabbing (if not seeking) goofball, and the history in which he moved (meeting the Beatles, Lyndon Johnson, addressing the anti-Vietnam rally in Washington, etc.) was executed in broad strokes, Benjamin is – despite his unique situation – a much more considered and quieter character. The history that moves around him is no less striking, but it is played out in smaller part, as background, it is almost incidental. And he doesn’t, thankfully, come out with any eye-rollingly daft pronouncements about life being like a box of chocolates. Similarly, Pitt’s turn in Interview with the Vampire is also referenced, because it is impossible to ignore the presence of New Orleans throughout, his voice-over constantly infused with the same deep drawl.

Fincher has turned out a genuinely peculiar film. Filled with amazing images (the too brief Warner Bros and Paramount logo fiddles are absolutely brilliant, the best I’ve seen), great tricks, stabs at the profound and poetic, you might begin to think that he has taken on too much, and you’d probably be right. But this is never less than fascinating, and a curious case in itself. That it doesn’t completely work should in no way detract from the scale of the man’s ambition. And Pitt and Blanchett have never been better, and for that alone it should be recommended.

Only, see it soon. Ironically, slow-moving three-hour ruminations on the nature of time, despite the star quality and the awards, will not lengthy cinematic runs make. Catch it while you can, it won’t be long for this world.

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