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The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

Directed by David Fincher
Certificate 12a, 165 mins

Benjamin Button

People are born, grow old and die. That seems straightforward enough. Yet in F Scott Fitzgerald's short story and Fincher's adaptation of it, a man is born old, grows younger and dies a baby. Clocking in at over two and a half hours, the film is more complex than the short story and makes an extraordinary opening gaffe: the short story has the man born as a fully grown, decrepit septuagenarian while the film has him born as a baby-sized septuagenarian, a change which undermines the premise's logic.

That said, Eric Roth and Robin Swicord's screenplay takes Fitzgerald's basic concept and runs with it, moving Benjamin's year of birth forward from 1860 to 1918 to set his life in the 20th (and the start of the 21st) century. With the exception of his father's position in southern society as a prospering businessman in the clothing trade, most of the details of Benjamin's life are invented for the film - his childhood years in an old folks home with the black cleaning lady/foster mother Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), his defining trip to a brothel, his deckhand time on a tramp steamer under Captain Mike (Jared Harris), his affair in Russia with a bored, English Channel-swimming diplomat's wife Elizabeth Abbott (Tilda Swinton) and, crucially, his on-off lifelong relationship with Daisy (a luminous Cate Blanchett) who grows up and grows older normally as Ben grows younger. His initial baby size notwithstanding, Brad Pitt is terrific as the increasingly youthful protagonist. A poignant frame story involves the dying Daisy and her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) in a New Orleans hospital at the onset of Hurricane Katrina.

As you'd expect with Fincher's directing (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac), the whole thing looks terrific although it often feels like a bloated string of set pieces overvaluing its own self-importance. Still, there is a real attempt here to jot down the details of a life from cradle to grave. Where the film really scores, though, is in the relationship between its two leads - two lovers destined for one another who, at a certain point in their lives are more or less the same age. But before that Daisy is a little girl while Ben is to all intents and purposes an old man, while towards the heartbreaking end, he is first her junior by a decade (she has understandably married someone else after Ben has left) then a small child picked up by social services with no idea who he is. Finally he dies, a baby in her arms.

Viewers should be warned that Daisy's youthful career as a dancer paints a 'typical' picture of a dance company as a closed off sexual world within which everyone sleeps with everyone else, an alleged 'universal truth' to which those who see the value of (or indeed are aware of the existence of) sexual abstinence or monogamy might object. Yet at the same time, the portrait of the performer completely obsessed with her collaborative art to the exclusion of all else is spot on.

Overall, however, there is much to admire here, and Fincher's film is unlike anything else you've ever seen (although the palette is more than a little reminiscent of Se7en). Whether it's quite as good as its 13 Oscar nominations suggest is a matter for debate. But it's worth seeing as a provocative meditation on life and the purpose of human existence.

Jeremy Clarke