The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a beautiful love story – the film will only work if you allow the charm of the story to work its magic upon you. Unlike Roger Ebert or Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, two respected film critics whose opinion I trust, I found the film beguiling and entrancing.
The story – Benjamin Button is born old and ages in reverse, until he is a baby when he dies – seems so implausible and so hard to put on screen that it is amazing just to be able to watch the film and not laugh at so stupid it looks. On the contrary, the film looks incredible and you are never in any doubt that what you are watching is real – the only thought in your head is: ‘How the hell did they do this?’
The visual quality of the film should not be a surprise when the director is David Fincher – if you’ve seen where he recreates 1970s San Francisco for the underrated Zodiac, you know he knows how to use CGI flawlessly to make the film believable. His attention to detail is amazing – there is a flashback at the beginning of the film, which acts as a vignette to possibly explain the circumstance that allows for Benjamin’s condition, where Fincher creates a Somme battlefield from the First World War for about 30 seconds of film just to create atmosphere and realism in this short and ultimately irrelevant part of the film. The real surprise is that Fincher, the man behind Fight Club and Seven, has crafted such an appealing fairy tale.
The story starts with Daisy (Cate Blanchett, in amazing prosthetics to make her look ancient) is in hospital near death, who gets her daughter (Julia Ormond) to read to her from a diary written by Benjamin (Brad Pitt), thus providing the context for the film, with occasional returns to Daisy and her daughter. The story of Benjamin follows a linear narrative, to make up for the unusual nature of the conceit: on the last day of the First World War, Benjamin is born in New Orleans but his mother dies in childbirth. His father (Jason Flemyng) is distraught, and leaves the child on the steps of a nursing home where he is found by Queenie, a nurse at the home, who is unable to have children of her and so raises Benjamin as her own because she is told that he probably won’t last long anyway.
Benjamin fits in at the home because he looks so old – the special effects are amazing because you can see it’s Pitt, who does a great job of inhabiting the character – even though he is a child at heart. His life changes when he first sees Daisy as a young girl, visiting her grandmother in the home, and their lives intersect over the years. Benjamin grows younger and he ends up going to sea on a tugboat – he may look young but he has the strength and vigour of a young man – finding time to end up in Russia for a while, where he has an affair with a married woman (Tilda Swinton), and even sees some of the second World War when they arrive at the scene of a naval disaster.
When Benjamin returns from the war, looking younger still, he learns that Daisy is a successful dancer in New York – their lives intersect but things don’t work out just yet; Daisy wants to sleep with him when she first sees him, but Benjamin doesn’t want it to be an experiment for her. When he visits her later in New York, she is in love with another dancer. It is only when Daisy’s career as a dancer is ended by an accident (which is perhaps the only negative to the story – taking away her independence is the only way to permit the love to blossom) that Daisy and Benjamin can be together – Pitt’s delivery of the response ‘Absolutely’ to Daisy’s ‘Sleep with me’ is beautiful and funny.
Of course, the story cannot end with a Happy Ever After with Benjamin’s condition (and the gutshot you get when a decision is made and a look is exchanged is so powerful), but the power of the love, even for the short time they were able to enjoy it, means that there is still power and poignancy. The story works in the present, bringing together a daughter with her mother, who didn’t even know her mother was a famous dancer, and the truth.
This is a really good film, although perhaps not an Oscar-worthy film; the film is well directed, the acting is excellent all round – Blanchett and Pitt are excellent, and it’s amazing to see them old and young (the film should win all the technical awards at the Oscars) – and the script is charming as well as funny: any script where you get laughter from the recurring joke of a man being struck by lightening seven times has to be good. The running time is nearly three hours, but you don’t notice it because you are so captivated by the this charming and exquisitely told fairy tale.