The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a three hour epic that hinges on a gimmick. It’s a gimmick with noble literary origins, being loosely based on a 1921 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, but it is a gimmick nonetheless. The film lives and dies by one’s willingness to accept a central character that is old when he is born and grows younger by the year, until he dies as an infant. Everyone he knows and loves grow older in the usual way, aging slowly as Benjamin goes backwards, passing them on the way down. Embrace that and you will embrace the film.

Attempting to synopsise a story that opens at the end of the First World War and comes to a close during Hurricane Katrina would take all day. The bare bones are these: Benjamin comes into the world in New Orleans during the Armistice to a mother that dies in childbirth and a father (Jason Flemyng) who abandons him, thinking the child, with his wizened face, is a monster. He is taken in by a loving black woman, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), who works in an old folk’s home in the city. She raises him as her own, tenderly caring for this bald headed, deeply wrinkled creature, who with his cataracts and cane, fits right in with her other charges.

When he is 13 (and looks about 65), Benjamin meets Daisy, the visiting granddaughter of another resident. Although she will come and go from his life, as Benjamin grows up, and appears younger, Daisy remains the love of his life. Then in the middle section of the film, the now middle-aged Benjamin sets out of his adventures, having been primed for the wider world by an entertaining encounter with a world-travelling African bon vivant (Rampai Mohadi). He takes a job on a boat, captained by a hard-drinking Irishman (Jared Harris) and, in a dream-like sequence has an affair in faraway Murmansk with the sophisticated Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), an ambassador's wife.

Eventually, however, the momentum of the story has Benjamin and Daisy (Cate Blanchett) come together in equilibrium at precisely the right time for both of them, eventually consummating a romance that has been mooted from the opening scenes. The catch, of course, being that their time together is limited by the magic that possesses him; she continues to age as he grows ever younger.

At first glance the film Benjamin Button most recalls is 1994s Forrest Gump, which placed a superficially similar character in the midst of a chronological span (including a war) and attempted to define the era through his adventures. The screenwriter in both instances is Eric Roth, but where Gump trudged blank-faced through the history of television, eating chocolates and playing ping-pong, Button glides through time itself, consistently engaged and aware but without a trace of Forrest’s wet-eyed sentimentality.

Still best known as the director of the serial killer thriller Se7en, the lush, sepia-toned period epic Benjamin Button is a significant chance of pace from director Fincher, but he brings every element of his technical and storytelling skills to the film to present an initially odd, gradually absorbing, eventually devastating treatise on the passage of time. But in some ways, Benjamin Button shares a theme with the director’s last film, Zodiac, which likewise revolved around the slow-drip erosion of time. Where that film tried and failed to solve a puzzle, this one is content to let the mystery lie.

Technically, the process involved in allowing Pitt to play each of the seven ages of a man is astonishing but from beneath the computerised slight-of-hand and prosthetic make-up, the actor gives a remarkable performance, emotionally nimble as a pre-adolescent geriatric and becoming convincingly more distant and weary as the reality of his curse becomes apparent. Opposite him, Blanchett is just as captivating, particularly in the central section when she moves to Paris to become a dancer. To close that section of the story, Fincher demonstrates his theory on time and chance in a bravura sequence that eventually brings Daisy and Benjamin back together, but at a terrible cost to her.

Whatever the director’s skills in realising the impossible on screen, the lasting impressions of his film are emotional rather than mechanical. There are whole sections of Benjamin Button that ran around in my head for days after I saw it. “Nothing lasts”, someone says at a crucial point. Some things do.

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