I’ll get to the film in a moment, but first let me tell you about a story – a story called ‘Last Contact’ by Stephen Baxter. The story is about the end of the Universe, as seen from an English country garden, and it is beautifully affecting. My problem after reading it was that, to achieve his effect, Baxter had to make his cosmic cataclysm take place unfeasibly soon (seventy years hence rather than the billions of years that has been predicted). He stretched the science to a point I just couldn’t accept; I had seen too much of the working, and it spoiled the trick for me. I mention this now because watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button left me in a very similar state of mind.
As the First World War ends, Thomas Button’s wife dies in childbirth. Unable to face the prospect of raising his son, Button (played by Jason Flemyng) abandons the baby on the steps of a care home. One of the nurses, Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), takes the boy in and names him Benjamin. But Benjamin is unusual, because he was born with an aged body, and grows physically younger as the years go by.
As a youngster (though with the appearance of an old man), Benjamin meets Daisy Fuller, six years his junior and the granddaughter of one of the home’s residents. He is infatuated with her, and remains so throughout his life. But they can’t be together, not yet; and especially not after he joins the crew of a tugboat and she starts a career as a ballerina. These come to an end in time, as the tug is destroyed in the Second World War; and, several years later, Daisy is injured in a car accident. And, eventually, Benjamin and Daisy gain their happiness together, becoming parents – but Benjamin ultimately decides to leave, not wishing his child to have a father who’s growing younger.
The adult Benjamin is played by Brad Pitt, and the adult Daisy by Cate Blanchett. Their performances are decent enough (though Pitt seems to spend a good deal of the film looking quizzical), but the real star of the movie is its visuals. That’s what won the Oscars, and deservedly so: I’m not sure when Pitt first appears properly ‘in the flesh’, but it must be at least half an hour into the running time; before then, Benjamin is CGI, and I couldn’t spot the point of transition. It’s undeniably impressive to see the actors at different stages of their characters’ lifespans (and there are others beside the two leads who are shown at multiple ages); but I also find there’s something creepy about it, particularly about seeing Pitt’s and Blanchett’s features on younger faces.
That’s not my main quibble with the movie, though. For one thing, I’m not sure that Curious Case really makes the most of its premise, because many of the situations feel as though they might as well be happening to someone ageing in the normal direction. The twenty-something Daisy does not fall for Benjamin, but what difference does it make that he has the body of an old man? The two would surely be estranged anyway, because he’s spent years at sea, and she’s moved on with her own life. When Benjamin contemplates being a father in his situation – well, anyone becoming a parent at the age of fifty would face similar issues.
And when Benjamin and Daisy do get together (when he is 44 and she 38), the ‘age difference’ just isn’t there; by then, he has matinée-idol looks, but she too looks younger than she is. They make a typically attractive Hollywood-movie couple; their life together is pretty much as perfect as it could be. The only fly in the ointment is that this won’t last forever – but then, it wouldn’t anyway. A true sense of otherness only emerges in the film’s closing stages, when the elderly Daisy encounters the ‘child’ Benjamin. But where was that otherness in the rest of the movie?
I also have a sense (as with the Stephen Baxter story I was talking about earlier) of seeing too much of the artifice behind the film – to tell its story, the movie makes choices that stretch probability. The key example is how Daisy ages: she is very fortunate in that regard for most of her life, as it suits the film (looking younger than her years for as long as she does, becoming a mother in her forties) – but then the plot needs her to be on her deathbed, and she goes from a vigorous, healthy old woman to being bedridden and decrepit in the space of two years. I don’t buy it. Yes, it’s all possible, but it’s too obvious that Daisy’s life takes the course it does because it serves the purpose of the story.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think this is a bad movie: it’s arresting to look at (if a little unsettling, as I said), it feels shorter than its running time of two-and-a-half hours – it is an impressive achievement. But it still feels to me as though it’s lacking something. The moral of the story can be summed up as ‘make the most of life and your talents’. Sounds a good idea to me – but it didn’t need a life lived backwards to make me think so.