Just us, the cameras, and those wonderful people out there in the dark...

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Whale Music (1994)

* * *

Director: Richard J. Lewis
Starring: Maury Chaykin, Cynthia Preston

Sometimes a performance is so great that everything around it becomes secondary. That's not necessarily a bad thing as Whale Music and Maury Chaykin's epic performance demonstrates. The film surrounding the performance is pretty good, though flawed, but it's Chaykin that you remember afterwards.

Chaykin stars as Desmond Howl, a thinly veiled stand-in for Brian Wilson. A great musician who has spent the decade since his brother's death living as a recluse in an increasingly delapidated house, Des becomes further divorced from reality with each passing day. He no longer bothers to get dressed and he continues to swim in a pool that appears as if it hasn't been cleaned in years, his contact with the outside world is kept to a minimum, and much of his time is spent composing music for whales. When asked later in the film what he likes about whales, he describes them in terms that could also be applied to himself.

His isolation is broken by the sudden arrival of Claire (Cynthia Preston), who simply invites herself into his mansion and makes herself at home. At first he thinks she's a drug induced hallucination but he ultimately has no qualms about her presence even after he realizes that she's a flesh and blood person. With a little intervention from Claire (who cleans up the house and, mercifully, the pool) Des begins to take small steps back into the world and a relationship develops between these two damaged people who work at protecting each other (not always successfully) from the outside forces which threaten them. Claire is running from troubles in her past and Des is haunted by the ghost of his brother (Paul Gross) whose suicide, in a way, killed them both.

Chaykin's performance alternates easily between cheeky irreverence and intense vulnerability. At times he carries himself as if he doesn't quite know what it is to be human; he's withdrawn and cautious like a wild animal (the film, obviously, draws parallels between Des and whales but a bear is an equally apt comparison), a wildness that is underscored in a scene where Des literally roars at the record company executive pressuring him to write more profitable music. On the flip side, he has a great way with words and barbs just roll off his tongue, dismantling his opponents. However, it's not through conversation but through music that he really connects to the world around him. It's only when he's working on a song that he seems to truly come alive and be fully present within himself. Chaykin handles the complexities of the character well and manages to keep the performance reigned in even during scenes of exceptionally high emotion when it things threaten to go over the top.

Playing opposite him, Preston is a bit out of her depth. She nails Claire's attitude but her line readings tend to be a bit stiff and she never seems fully comfortable in the character. The chemistry she has with Chaykin is fine but the woodenness of her performance is more pronounced when compared to his seemingly effortless portrayal of Des.

Made in 1994, Whale Music has not aged especially well. It looks quite dated and to compound matters, I found it hard to get a sense of when it was supposed to take place. The novel on which the film is based came out in 1989, so I assume that it takes place in the late 80s (though some of the fashions seem more early 90s) but the music (specifically the song "Torque") has a distinctly early Beach Boys sound and is discussed as if it's all the rage on the charts so... I dunno. Maybe it doesn't really matter since the film is nevertheless fairly enjoyable and I would still recommend it on the basis of Chaykin's performance.

No comments: