Taraji P Henson
You never know what’s coming for you, goes the oft-repeated line in this oddly enchanting film. It’s doubly true in the case of Benjamin Button, as he takes on the world – in reverse order.
Button is a truly unique man, the principal character of a 1920s story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Born as a baby in an old man’s body, he is a confused soul from the start. For while everybody else negotiates the traditional cradle to grave path, Benjamin starts at the other end and works backwards.
It allows the audience to indulge in a fantasy we must have all had from time to time – reversing the ageing process. What would it be like to grow hair again? Revelatory, in this particular Benjamin’s case! Whatever happens, one thing seems to ring true regardless – we start off small, get bigger, and then we shrink again.
David Fincher has the difficult task of directing a film addressing these and more pertinent issues. That he largely succeeds is some achievement, though by keeping a sense of fantasy at the edge of the picture he avoids some of the more emotive aspects that might have been incorporated.
Brad Pitt holds the attention throughout as the principal character. This film is all about him, and a better casting could hardly have been made, given he’s the embodiment of physical male perfection to some. His film star looks gradually evolve, initially visible through a twinkle in the eye yet coming in to focus as the ‘slide’ towards youthfulness begins. Thanks to the wonder of excellent computer enhancements and prosthetics, his old man face in baby dimensions is if anything more appealing, gaining an initial sympathy vote that proves hard to shake off.
We follow his life in a beautifully shot biopic, charting a course of growing up (and down!), making new friends while finding first loves and lifetime loves. Button gets through the Second World War by the skin of his teeth, surviving a chilling encounter with a U-boat against the odds. Yet throughout the major events poignant impressions are left by those figures that make briefly intense appearances on the surface.
Cate Blanchett makes the biggest impact, a serene presence as ballet dancer Daisy pirouetting in to capture Button’s heart. The scenes at the picture’s core, both characters briefly corresponding in age and body, are of a simplistic beauty and indulge the moment, the two leads reprising their chemistry from Babel in altogether happier circumstances.
Yet a little something is missing from the equation. While Pitt gives a fine performance he tends to be emotionally one dimensional, denied by the script an opportunity to express any confusion or anger at what is happening to his body.
Thankfully the strong supporting cast papers over those cracks, with Taraji P Henson an intensely maternal presence as Button’s foster mother and Jason Flemyng his permanently troubled father. Meanwhile Jared Harris brings a roguish likeability to the seafaring captain Button encounters in ‘middle age’, and Julia Ormond offers a surprisingly moving first kiss.
There are frequent moments of subtle comedy and thoughtfulness running through the film, underpinned by a strong sense of love as Fitcher traces a timeline from the end of the First World War to Hurricane Katrina through fashion, music and art. With much of the film shot in New Orleans just weeks after the disaster this is especially pertinent. The hurricane’s presence hovers throughout, a backdrop to Blanchett’s character as an old woman as she reminisces on Button’s life.
While too long, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is an utterly unique look at life through the eyes of a relative outsider. It reminds us of our prejudices, what we take for granted, those who we love and lose and life’s opportunities, both missed and taken. In its own curious way it is a heart-warming film, provided you don’t take it too seriously.