Director David Fincher is best known for his slightly twisted, darkly humorous and unflinching filmmaking, rather than his schmaltzy sentimentalism. With Seven and Fight Club on his CV it’s easy to see why. So when it came to the gargantuan task of creating an epic spanning nearly 100 years of American history, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button could have been a very different film. It could have been a stark, unrelenting homage to the futility of life, or, worse, Forest Gump. As it happens, it’s found some miraculous middle ground.
In 1921, writer F Scott Fitzgerald told the original tale. I shall tell you what occurred, and let you judge for yourself. In 1918, Louisiana, New Orleans, amidst celebrations of the end of WW1, a child was born. His mother died during the birth and his horrified father abandoned him on the steps of a nursing home. It was Queenie (Taraji P Henson), a young African-American working at the home, who took him in as her own. The doctor soon confirmed the curious truth: Benjamin Button had been “born on the way to the grave” with the appearance and ailments of a man well into his 80s.
The film begins with Cate Blanchett’s ailing Daisy in a hospital bed in 2005, while outside the gathering storm of Hurricane Katrina buffets against the windows. On her deathbed, she tells her daughter the story of a clockmaker grieving the death of his son, a casualty of war. He is commissioned to make a beautiful clock for the New Orleans train station, and intentionally makes it so that it runs backwards in the hope that it could bring the fallen back to life. It’s a fitting prelude to the Last Will and Testament of Benjamin Button; the man who aged backwards.
Brad Pitt, a series of size doubles, and a severely bushed special effects team, all play the title role throughout the ages of the character’s life. Way back in 2002, Gollum showed just how advanced special effects had become, and as an audience we marvelled at how he almost, but not quite, looked real. The ageing effects in Fincher’s film, from the slight changes in the tenors of the characters’ voices and their sagging mid-sections, to the peach-complexion and smooth lines of Blanchett’s 23-year-old dancer’s body, are the key to making The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in any way believable.
At first Benjamin believes he is the same as the other care home residents. Then, at seven-years-old, Daisy enters his life and, much to the consternation of her grandmother, there is an instant connection between them. As much as he finds refuge and acceptance amongst the elderly eccentrics, he is separated by years from everyone around him, including Daisy. This is just the beginning of their intertwining journeys: their lives progress towards the point where their ages and paths converge, before the tragic inevitability of time takes them in opposite directions once more.
The film raises valid questions about life and death, about whether those tiny, glaringly bright moments are worth living for, and about why, even when Brad Pitt is old, decrepit and wrinkly as hell – he’s still sexually desirable.
Penned by the writer of Forest Gump, Eric Roth, this historical biography is bound to evoke comparisons. However, where Forest Gump’s stepping stone plot is constantly dictated by historical landmarks, here history acts as a backdrop to Benjamin’s unique life. Despite being a film about living in reverse, the ups and downs of an ordinary life are excellently portrayed, and between Roth and Fincher, the broad spectrum of human experience is handled exceedingly well.
The simple message is that love and life are measured by loss. As bittersweet as this film is, there are a lot of these life-affirming messages artfully folded into the mix. Like the elderly resident struck by lightening seven times – surviving each blow reminds us we’re alive. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is as downbeat as it is whimsical. Its flaws lie in its crushingly pragmatic view of the certainty of death – but while it can seem relentless, it is never heartless and it is a hauntingly beautiful tale, well told.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (12A) is on general release now