May 8, 2009

Notes on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

I went to watch ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ with great expectations; after all it was directed by David Fincher of ‘Fight Club’, ‘Seven’ and ‘Zodiac’ fame and the screenplay was by Eric Roth who previously gave us the delightful ‘Forrest Gump’. I wasn’t disappointed though the rest of the world seems to have a whole host of problems ranging from Roth’s extensive reworking of the original story, the lack of traction in Benjamin’s character to the film’s 166 minute running time.

‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’ is loosely based on Scott Fitzgerald’s short story that combines equal measures of satire, humour and whimsy, with no scope for any serious introspection about life, the pathos of old age and the transitory nature of romantic fulfillment. Both the story and the film are about a man who's born elderly and grows younger.

Benjamin (Brad Pitt) is born in 1918, ‘the day the Great War ended’, with not only the puckered face of an old man, but clogged arteries, arthritis and other assorted conditions that define old age. His father, horrified at his son’s deformities, leaves him at the doorstep of an old-age home where Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who works there, brings him up. It is here that he meets Daisy (Cate Blanchett), the love of his life, who comes to visit her grandmother at the home. The two have an on-again/off-again relationship as Benjamin grows from a helpless old man to a helpless baby.

Outwardly alike to the inmates of the old-age home in appearance and infirmities, Benjamin grows from infant to toddler to fretful 11 year old among them. It is never his fate to join the neighbourhood children in their games; he can only sit on the varnished rocking chair like the other inmates and watch them wistfully. He is especially bereft for the other inmates of the home have at least enjoyed a childhood and can recollect it but Benjamin never gets to actually live any state of his life as it ought to be lived. With the perspective of a perennial outsider, Benjamin alternately identifies with the playful children he can see, as also the aged tenants with whom he has to live. He learns not to view death with despair, rather to accept it with equanimity as an inevitable end to life. This is a terrible wisdom for a child to possess. Says one of the residents he befriends, “We’re meant to lose the people we love. How else are we supposed to know how important they are?”

At 17, when he looks and feels considerably fitter than before, Benjamin joins the eccentric Mike the captain of a tugboat. It is through his adventures on the tugboat that Benjamin develops any real relationship outside the one he has so long shared with Queenie. With help from Mike he visits a prostitute whom he more than amazes with his desperate hammering and who has no way of knowing that the man who looks old enough to be nearly 70 is actually a teenager.

After Pearl Harbour, the tugboat is recruited by the U.S Navy where Benjamin loses most of his comrades and finally lands up in Russia in the heart of severe winter. Stranded in an old hotel, snowed in from all sides, Benjamin is finally free at last. Also alone. Bereft of Quennie’s overwhelming concern, Mike’s boisterous personality, or Daisy’s magic spell, he is finally free to form adult relationships and that is exactly what he does. His affair with Elizabeth (a mysterious and regal Tilda Swinton) not only reveals to him that he is capable of being loved by others apart from Queenie, but also about the sadness of lost dreams. Elizabeth we learn was an ace swimmer who was so buckled by her failed attempt to cross the English Channel that she never attempted it again in her life. When the affair ends abruptly, Benjamin is neither surprised nor heartbroken, yet even this has contributed to his growth and shown him the importance of pursuing ones dreams, no matter how transient life itself is. In retrospect he writes to his daughter much later, “It’s never too late to be whoever you want to be”, and “Your life is defined by its opportunities, even the ones you miss”. These may seem like Archies greeting card sentiments but fall into place in the film.

Post his return from Russia and after much ado, Daisy and he finally end up together. That it is again the fortuitous hand of luck that throws Daisy and him together is explained in one of the best interludes of the film where a series of unrelated, chance incidents conspire to move events in a fashion which unites him with his childhood sweetheart. It is impossible to watch the sequence and not think that had things transpired otherwise, Benjamin’s life would have turned out quite differently. It is Daisy who tells their story from her deathbed in modern-day New Orleans as her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) reads to her passages from Benjamin’s diary.

While the first 90 minutes of the film are a bit slow, perfectly in keeping with the elegiac tone of the film and its cinematography, the second half of the film which deals with Benjamin’s shared life with Daisy, her decision to have his child in the face of his growing fears and her firm determination that she will somehow make ‘them’ work, Benjamin’s gradual decent into youth and finally wordless infancy, are what truly makes this film worthy of its Oscar nomination. Without going into details let me just say that Benjamin with his curious disability, sees and does everything and a lot more than any one of us ever has. He shows how rehabilitating love can be to anyone who has been born unfortunate; likewise he also shows that there are some journeys, that no matter how arduous, must be undertaken alone. Daisy’s untiring love and caring for him and his selflessness in always putting her welfare before his is the idea that underscores this part. Seen in this way, ‘Benjamin Button’ is no better than a simple love story about two people who never wanted anything better than to build a life together, who pass through much of their early years with their paths crossing each others, and who when they finally meet, realize the sweet pain of a life together that was too short.

The splendid cinematography by Claudio Miranda captures the passage of time from 1918 to 2005 with its use of sepia tone photography. It does full justice to the slow, languid quality of Benjamin’s childhood in early 20th century New Orleans, as well as the lived-in feel of the home he builds with Daisy in the 60’s. For a film that is so high on soul, the music by Alexandre Desplat is tepid and fails to impress. There is none of the vibrancy of Thomas Newman’s ‘Feather Theme’ that so enhanced the appeal of ‘Forrest Gump’.

While there are several elements that are common to the story of Benjamin and Forrest, chiefly due to the unfortunate disabilities they are born with, ‘Benjamin Button’ is less about finding gold at the end of the rainbow. It is perhaps the best film to have come out in recent terms that examines the enduring quality of love, the healing that flows from it naturally and the message of hope that stems from it. After all it is because of this love that Benjamin finds the courage to live his words, “I hope you live a life you are proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”

p.s. earlier published in 4indiawomen

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