“You haven’t said two words,” says Daisy, gazing across the table at Benjamin, his perfection a constant reminder of her own imperfections.
“I didn’t want to ruin it,” he replies gravely.
Quite a few actors in the past have enjoyed playing taciturn characters; an economy with words can be a powerful weapon in an actor’s arsenal. Few of them, however, have taken to it the way Brad Pitt does.
From his breakthrough role in Thelma and Louise to the awfulness that was Meet Joe Black, from Snatch to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Pitt seems to revel in roles that force the audience to study his face for a clue to his thoughts rather than its celebrated prettiness. Of course, it’s a move that can backfire, resting as it does on the quality of the writing behind the movie – Meet Joe Black, for instance, drew more attention to his lovely and (it must be said) blank face because there was simply nothing else to take up the slack.
But sometimes, as in Jesse James, a movie that never quite got the amount of love it rightfully deserved, he employs it to stunning effect. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is in much the same vein but springs from another sort of well entirely, employing Pitt the way it does as an eloquent narrator as well as a quiet protagonist.
Like Jesse James, David Fincher’s Benjamin Button is a tragedy told in poetic detail; unlike Jesse James, however, there is a gentleness to this story, a golden richness to its tone that is only heightened by Claudio Miranda’s cinematography. Consequently, it’s one of those movies that takes a while to sink in even as you’re swept away by its sheer beauty. Like the carefully constructed clock that grounds this tale, it’s so perfectly put together it can easily leave you out in the cold. It’s poignancy is so total, so complete in itself, that it never stops reminding you that this is a time that has passed forever, a time which you can never enter, even as it seduces you.
For the true curiosity of Benjamin Button is not that its protagonist ages backwards: it lies in the gentleness with which he tells his story because so much of it is just so cruel.
It begins with his mother’s passing in childbirth as the world celebrates the end of the Great War outside his home; passes quickly on to his abandonment by his father who is repulsed by the very sight of him; and moves on to his childhood in a retirement home which is in itself a tiny world of sadness where people come to die. As the young Benjamin watches the children playing across the street from his wheelchair, teetering dangerously on the edge of the steps, we’re watching the stage being set for his role in life: always the observer, never quite the participant, even in his own story; a man whose life is cobbled together from the experiences of others.
Benjamin learns the piano, falls for the red-headed little girl who wants to be a ballerina, and goes away to sea to live a life of adventure before coming home to claim what is rightfully his – it is a romantic tale. But is it really his story he is telling us? Or is it the story of a wise woman who dies alone, the story of a man who lived a lonely life hobbled by his grief, fear and guilt, the story of a girl who wanted to be more than she was?
Are any of our stories truly our own? Or are our lives a collection of stories, pathways forming where we have intersected with others or caught up in events beyond our control?
In direct contrast to Benjamin is his childhood sweetheart – Daisy (Cate Blanchett). There is no doubt in Daisy’s mind that she is the star of her story. She is beautiful, she is talented, she is a sophisticate and the world is her oyster. If she is thoughtless, cruel and just a little jealous, she is all of these things because it is her right.
Their love story is perfect, meant to be, and a tragedy set to the sound of the clock ticking away.
And yet, the most heartbreaking part of Daisy and Benjamin’s lives together is not that she will grow old and he will grow young – it is that he feels he cannot share his burden with her. Experience has taught him that he is not meant to be a part of a family: it started without his knowledge when his father cast him out, was reinforced by the fact that he was such an outcast that he was adopted by a black woman in the segregated South, and it consumes him now when he looks at his child and realizes he can never be a “proper” father to her.
And the true perfection of Daisy and Benjamin’s lives together is not that they were once beautiful and in love, but that in the end he dies in her arms, knowing that she was there for him, in spite of everything; and that she dies thinking of him.
To paraphrase the nameless lady in diamonds, some tragedies form the essence of life.