Liv­ing back­wards

Evan Wil­liams

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

ONCE upon a time there was an old clock­maker who lived in a city called New Orleans. One day the clock­maker’s son went off to war, and when the clock­maker heard that his son had been killed he was so up­set he de­cided to make the big­gest clock he had ever built. He worked and worked on the clock for many years. And at last the great day came when the clock would be un­veiled at the rail­way sta­tion. But when it was started a strange thing hap­pened. Its hands kept mov­ing back­wards.

Other strange things started hap­pen­ing that day. A fa­mous di­rec­tor, David Fincher, made a film called

. And when peo­ple heard this news they looked at each other and said: ‘‘ Fincher? He made all those nasty, scary pic­tures such as Se7en , Fight Club and Panic Room. Why would he make a sweet, ro­man­tic fairy­tale about some­one who is born as a very old man and gets younger all the time?’’

And a wise man replied: ‘‘ Be­cause this is a great part for Brad Pitt. He plays Ben­jamin through­out his whole life and his per­for­mance is so clever he will win a magic Os­car in the land of Hol­ly­wood. And Fincher might win an Os­car, too. And Cate Blanchett, who plays the girl Ben­jamin loves, might win an Os­car. Then the pic­ture will make lots of money and every­one will live hap­pily ever af­ter.’’

Per­haps this is too cyn­i­cal a tone to be adopt­ing at Christ­mas. Fincher’s fairy­tale is in­deed beau­ti­ful and charm­ing, a vis­ual tour de force, and may turn out to be Hol­ly­wood’s most pop­u­lar and suc­cess­ful fan­tasy since For­rest Gump. That film, too, was writ­ten by Eric Roth; and while it would be stretch­ing things to say that Ben­jamin is an­other For­rest, both films are about lost souls drift­ing through a sur­real his­tor­i­cal panorama. Wars are fought, pres­i­dents come and go, Louis Arm­strong songs give way to the Bea­tles on the sound­track.

Roth’s source for Ben­jamin But­ton was a story by F. Scott Fitzger­ald, writ­ten in the 1920s and in­spired ( the stu­dio tells us) by some words of Mark Twain: ‘‘ Life would be in­fin­itely hap­pier if we could be born at the age of 80 and grad­u­ally ap­proach 18.’’ I find that a very du­bi­ous propo­si­tion, but let’s go along with it for now.

There is some­thing macabre in Ben­jamin’s story, and I sus­pect it ap­pealed to Fincher’s taste for the vi­o­lent and bizarre.

How, I won­dered, would he han­dle the birth of an old man? Would Ben­jamin emerge, adult and fully formed, from his mother’s womb, a feat that would test even Fincher’s imagination and the in­ge­nu­ity of his make-up crew, or would Ben­jamin be born as a nor­mal-sized in­fant who turns into an old man be­fore he starts get­ting younger?

As it hap­pens, the log­i­cal and anatom­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties pre­sented by the story’s premise are deftly solved. And while it doesn’t do to take a lit­eral-minded ap­proach to mag­i­cal hap­pen­ings, I can say that the early scenes are won­der­fully spooky: the mon­strous Ben­jamin ( whose mother, mer­ci­fully, has died in child­birth) is a wiz­ened, stunted crea­ture who takes his first clumsy steps at the in­sti­ga­tion of a re­vival­ist faith healer. His fa­ther, hav­ing planned to drown him as a baby, leaves him on the steps of a re­tire­ment home run by Quee­nie ( Taraji P. Hen­son), a black an­gel who over­comes her ini­tial re­vul­sion and brings up Ben­jamin as her own.

And so to the main story. When Ben­jamin is still a very old man ( a four-year-old vir­gin, let us say) he meets a lit­tle girl called Daisy. The two are drawn to each other, en­joy the same bed­time sto­ries and have a se­cret hid­ing place. ( Danger­ous ter­ri­tory, this — hint­ing at sex­ual pos­si­bil­i­ties be­tween an old man and a child without show­ing any­thing — but I said the film was clever.)

And while Daisy is grow­ing up to be Blanchett and a fa­mous bal­let dancer, Pitt is grow­ing down to be an ever younger Pitt. Their paths cross again and they fall in love at much the same age. Mean­while, Ben­jamin’s guilt-rid­den dad has be­come a mil­lion­aire; Ben­jamin has been to Moscow and had a sad en­counter with the lonely wife ( Tilda Swin­ton) of a Bri­tish diplo­mat; and back in the US he has joined the crew of a tug­boat and been swept off to war.

All the while he’s chang­ing from a wrin­kled old codger into some­one who looks at first like Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man play­ing Tru­man Capote, then a pass­able like­ness of Kevin Rudd, then a young Paul New­man, then a leather­jack­eted heart-throb with golden tan and a face like a teenage Mar­lon Brando. Can he look any younger? Yes, he can.

Sev­eral child ac­tors play Ben­jamin in his last years. I should add that Daisy’s story is told in flash­back while the old lady is dy­ing slowly in a hospi­tal bed in New Orleans, watched over by her daugh­ter ( Ju­lia Or­mond) while Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina is rag­ing out­side in all its fury.

I’m mak­ing it sound com­pli­cated, but re­ally it’s not. And of course it’s im­pos­si­ble to re­sist. A sweet-na­tured philo­soph­i­cal mes­sage is thump­ingly de­liv­ered at the end, but ev­ery­thing is nar­rated with in­com­pa­ra­ble bravura in glo­ri­ously fluid style.

Blanchett re­minds us just how good an ac­tor she can be ( is she re­ally danc­ing in some of those scenes?) and Pitt, with a min­i­mum of lines and many a soul­ful gaze, never lets us down. Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola, who made that re­cent clumsy and pre­ten­tious su­per­nat­u­ral fan­tasy, Youth Without Youth , about a man who re­mains per­pet­u­ally young af­ter be­ing struck by light­ning, should see The Cu­ri­ous Case of Ben­jamin But­ton and eat his poor old heart out.

* * * WRIT­TEN and di­rected by Philippe Claudel,

is a small, lovely film from France. Juli­ette ( Kristin Scott Thomas), hard, wary, with­drawn, re­turns to Nancy af­ter a long and un­ex­plained ab­sence to live with her younger sis­ter Lea ( Elsa Zyl­ber­stein). The ar­range­ment is not wel­comed by Lea’s hus­band, though their two small daugh­ters ( adopted in Viet­nam) are thrilled to have an aunty who plays the pi­ano.

It is some time be­fore we dis­cover that Juli­ette has been in prison for a ter­ri­ble crime and later still be­fore we learn what her crime was. Th­ese de­layed dis­clo­sures lend the film a cer­tain ten­sion, even a touch of mys­tery, but they feel con­trived. It seems un­likely that Juli­ette’s fam­ily, least of all her ador­ing sis­ter, would not have known of Juli­ette’s deep­est feel­ings or the true mo­tive for her crime.

But Claudel can still touch us deeply. Scott Thomas, who lived for years in Paris, gives a flaw­lessly judged per­for­mance. Claudel di­rects at close range, rarely mov­ing be­yond the fam­ily apart­ment, con­tent to let his cam­era dwell on trou­bled faces, the fleet­ing smiles and telling out­bursts of long-sup­pressed pas­sion that re­veal an in­fi­nite range of moods, the lit­tle mo­ments of hope and con­so­la­tion that can re­store the sad­dest hearts. The film is a joy.

Glo­ri­ous time: Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett shine in the charm­ing fan­tasy The Cu­ri­ous Case of Ben­jamin But­ton

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