Rating: Rated m (sexual references and coarse language)
This is quite a film, always interesting and entertaining through its almost 3 hour running time. It has been written by Eric Roth (who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Forrest Gump – which has many similarities with this one) and is directed by David Fincher, a director with a high and offbeat imagination and visual style, especially in his two highly influential films Se7en and Fight Club, both of which starred Brad Pitt.
Brad Pitt stars again. It is quite a brave and demanding performance from him. He is matched by Cate Blanchett.
Most people will know that this 'curious case', from a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is about a baby who is born as an old man and who lives backwards, appearing younger and younger as the decades go on, but inside he is old from birth and will reverse to baby mentality when he dies. With some special effect work, the younger (older) Benjamin looks like an old man but is short in stature, gradually changing to the Brad Pitt we know. The earlier scenes imagine what Pitt may look like as he ages; the later scenes remind us of what he has looked like in past films. Pitt also has to speak the voiceover and make it convincing and moving, which he does. It is a bravura performance.
Cate Blanchett as Daisy, on the other hand, appears at age 80 at the beginning of the film. She is in hospital, dying, in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina. She wants her daughter, Caroline (Julia Ormond) to read Benjamin's diary aloud and to learn about him. Daisy also tells a magic realism story of a clockmaker in New Orleans who creates a grand clock for the railway station – but it moves backwards, the clockmaker's reminder that we want to recapture life and change it (as he and his wife felt when their son went to World War I and was killed). This fable enables us to enter into Benjamin's life and journey as he is born in New Orleans on the night World War I ends.
As with Forrest Gump, Eric Roth's screenplay tells the story of an unusual man who lives through crucial events in American 20th century history: the post-war 20s, sailing in a tugboat through the 30s, commissioned to fight in World War II in the 40s. The visual style of these decades images the films of the period (with a very funny recurring image of a man who was struck by lightning seven times done in silent film style). The photography becomes brighter during the 1960s and onwards as Benjamin returns home, has a tumultuous then happy relationship with Daisy but has to face the reality of his growing younger as she grows older and the question of whether she will be able to mother Caroline as well as himself.
There are some interesting interludes throughout the film: Benjamin's father (Jason Flemyng) abandoning his son but wanting to be with him as he grows up, Queenie and Tizzy (Taraji P. Henson and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) caring for the ugly baby and bringing him up as their son, episodes on the tugboat with the hard-drinking, tatooed womanising captain Mike (Jared Harris), a meeting with the wife of a British diplomat in snowbound Russia in the late 30s (Tilda Swinton) with an interlude about her swimming the English Channel, a performance of Carousel on Broadway. And, all the time, Daisy is getting weaker, Caroline is surprised at what she is reading and Hurricane Katrina is turning and heading straight towards New Orleans.
At the halfway point of his life, Benjamin has the opportunity of living the life of Gatsby – and the heroine's name is Scott Fitzgerald's favoured name, Daisy. Benjamin is something of a variation on the Gatsby story, coming from nowhere and prospering. But Benjamin is a good man, a reverse Everyman of America's 20th century. And there is plenty to reflect on in terms of the meaning of life and death, grief and loss, love and care.
Village Roadshow Opens 26th December
Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.