Jessica Chastain’s wrenching new film The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her is generating awards chatter. Critic Owen Gleiberman gives his verdict.

It could be enlightened or myopic, or maybe a bit of both, but by now it's close to an article of faith that men and women view the world in overwhelmingly different ways. That divide provides the emotional and structural basis for The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him/Her, a drama, at once epic and intimate, of two married New Yorkers who have drifted apart in the wake of a tragedy. The film is three hours and 21 minutes long, and that's because it is actually two movies in one. The first half, Her, is told from the point of view of Eleanor (Jessica Chastain), who after being rescued from a suicide attempt informs her husband, Conor (James McAvoy) that she needs to go off on her own. She does, sort of, moving back in with her parents, taking classes and drifting through her memories, trying to come to grips with a universe – and a marriage – that has stopped making sense to her. The second half, Him, is Conor's story: he's an aspiring, but failing, restaurant entrepreneur, and though he's been ordered by Eleanor to leave her alone, he's compelled to pursue her. Can the two reconnect through the grief that at once unites and divides them?

As a movie, Him/Her has its own strangely divided history. After it played to great acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival, its distributor, the Weinstein Company, decided to release it first in a shortened, 'combined' version called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, which would weave both points of view together into a conventional two-hour narrative. That film was released in September, and if this had been the old days, when Harvey Weinstein – the company’s president – was known as ‘Harvey Scissorhands’ for his zealous compulsion to re-edit the work of filmmakers, then that might have been the whole story. But the kinder, gentler Harvey Weinstein of today is both Harvey Scissorhands and Harvey the Filmmaker's Friend. That's why both the short and long versions of this movie are being released. If you have already seen The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them, then  Him/Her just offers the chance to see a ‘director's cut’ version of the same material a month later – which may hardly seem worth the trouble.

Fortunately, Him/Her is truly the better film, even if it's only partly convincing. The movie is sensitive, mournful and more than a bit precious, oozing with insight into the anatomy of pain even when it's too high-minded to get the details right. Early on in Her, when Eleanor arrives at her parents' elegant suburban home, her depression is vivid in just the right acrid ways. But it's hard not to notice that her father, a psych professor (William Hurt) who named her after the famous Beatles song, is played with a shaggy boomer authenticity, whereas her mother (Isabelle Huppert) carries a jarring clichéd red-wine glass and a speaks with a buttery-thick accent that no French woman who has lived in the United States for 40 years would ever have. It may seem a niggling point, but this is the sort of thing that can throw you right out of a movie.

He said, she said

Chastain's performance is potent, up to a point. Eleanor talks her way into a literary theory class taught by a professor played with enjoyably cynicism by Viola Davis. When Conor tracks Eleanor down during a lecture and passes her a note, then follows her out the door, where she spits her rage at him, we're confronted with the raw irrationality of love betrayed. Chastain, though, looks and moves through all of this with a fluidly confident high chic that cuts against Eleanor's supposed dishrag state. It's hardly the actress's fault that she's a willowy beauty, but that never got in the way of her character's driven neurotic fury in Zero Dark Thirty. Here, she seems a little too relaxed and primped for every shot.

Why does Eleanor feel betrayed? It's the awful tug of fate that’s done the damage. What has pried her away from Conor is the death of their infant son the year before, and though we're told about this fairly early on, we never learn how the death occurred, as if that scarcely matters. This is an example of how the writer-director, Ned Benson, treats tragedy poetically, but the result is that the tragedy isn’t grounded in experience. It's hard to feel, in your gut, as if Eleanor and Conor were ever parents at all.

Yet what draws you into Him/Her is the vast, exploratory drama of marital separation: the way that the loss of a partner starts to look when it becomes an everyday state of being. In Him, we spend a lot of time just hanging out in the East Village bar that Conor, along with his chef and best friend (Bill Hader), has set up as a hip little eatery. McAvoy, between grim smiles, makes Conor a fascinating contradiction: a sweet guy who is also a hothead, one who's using the world as a punching bag to take out the anger he feels at his broken marriage. Conor suddenly has freedom and he doesn't know what to do with it. All he wants is to get Eleanor back, but his most agonising lesson is that he's got to let her go to have a chance of doing that.

Except for a scene in which a note is passed in class, which plays out fully in both Her and Him, Benson doesn't overlap the material. Him/Her isn't Scenes From a Marriage meets Rashomon – it's more like Before Midnight turned into a listlessly melancholy TV miniseries. Yet the movie nails something essential about the way that women and men grieve so differently, with Conor's proactive urgency played off against Eleanor's armoured passivity. For all its flaws and limitations, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby has a tenderness that sneaks up on you. Late in Her, Hurt's character delivers a monologue about how he nearly lost Eleanor in the ocean when she was two years old, and the actor articulates every wrenching tick-tock moment of the experience as if it had actually happened to him. It's a quietly spellbinding confession that cuts to the story's aching core. And when Eleanor and Conor finally do face up to their demons, the two points of view come together in a duet of loss that gently earns its tears.

★★★☆☆

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