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The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button

USA 2008
Directed by
David Fincher
167 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button

Synopsis: Daisy (Cate Blanchett) is dying in a New Orleans hospital. With her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) she reminisces upon her life, telling first of Mr Gateau, a clockmaker, who constructed an extraordinary timepiece which was made to run backwards, in the hope that Gateau’s son would return from the war. Daisy then instructs Caroline to read from a diary, in which a man called Benjamin Button tells of his strange life, beginning with his birth in 1918; being born as a baby but with all the attributes of an 80-year old man. Each year that Button gets chronologically older, his body becomes younger, as he heads towards youth in his later years. When he has only been alive 13 years, (but looks like a 70 year old!) he meets Daisy, then a mere girl. As Daisy matures Button grows ever younger until for a brief time their lives are able to intersect and they can be together.

This fascinating film is so rich in content that it’s hard to absorb it all at first viewing. The idea was born of a speculation by author Mark Twain that life would be better lived in reverse. This fanciful thought was expanded into a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald which in turn provided the inspiration for the script by Eric Roth (who wrote Forrest Gump), deftly realized by David Fincher.

Certainly the structure is a little formulaic – toggling as it does between the death bed of Daisy and the past as narrated by the diary writer, Benjamin Button. But beyond this slight disappointment, the film held me firmly in its thrall, firstly because of the intrinsic fascination of the subject matter, then the marvellous performances by Pitt and Blanchett, whilst, on a technical level, the remarkable make-up involved in the aging and “de-aging” of the characters is critical in getting the film to work. I know special make-up effects are getting more clever by the year, but these are the finest I’ve seen – the extreme close-ups of the faces make one marvel at just how so many years were added so convincingly to the relatively youthful actors. To see the eyes of Pitt and Blanchett staring out from decrepit wrinkled faces is quite unnerving! (and to see Pitt turned into a mere youth is equally persuasive).

However there is plenty more to be admired here than the magic of make-up. The story itself is at once engaging and indeed poignant, striking as it does at the core of human mortality, and the concept that no matter which way you cut it, death inevitably wins out. There are many touching scenes, such as when the downright ugly baby, predicted to die, is adopted by a black woman, Queenie (movingly portrayed by Taraji Henson). Queenie runs an old folks' home, and the strange old man in a child’s body is unusually at home there, growing more youthful as his companions gradually die off. Also very emotional are the many scenes where the lifelong bond between Daisy and Button are established and grow, and the sadness involved in the short time in which they can be together. Powerful relationships come and go in Button’s strange life. A significant one is with society lady, Elizabeth Abbott, played with an unusual mix of trademark iciness and a level of true warmth by Tilda Swinton.

Although there are some overtly obvious symbolic devices (Hurricane Katrina approaching, reinforcing the film's oft-cited mantra of never knowing what life has in store), and a number of heavy verbal allusions to death and the need to grab opportunity when it presents, as an overall cinematic experience this is one to be savoured and one much effective than Francis Ford Coppola's recent, thematically-related Youth Without Youth, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button is at once a beautiful generation-spanning love story, and an intriguing reflection upon one of life’s deepest and saddest truths – that you cannot hang on to anything.




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