Adapted from plays. Films reviewed: The Whale, Matilda

Posted in College, comedy, Disabilities, Fairytales, Family, Gay, Kids, Musical, School, UK by CulturalMining.com on December 17, 2022

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

With holiday season upon us, it’s a time when students and their parents have a chance to take some time off. And if you can’t afford a ticket, there are lots of Christmas movies playing for free at the Hot Docs Cinema at Bloor and Bathurst. So in honour of Christmas break, this week I’m looking at two new movies adapted from plays, with an educational theme. There’s a college professor who is ashamed to show his face to his students, and a little schoolgirl who dares to talk back to her headmistress.

The Whale

Dir: Darren Aronofsky

Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a college teacher who conducts his classes on his computer. And he never shows his face. He says it’s because he’s technologically inept but the real reason is he weighs 600 pounds and doesn’t want to show himself on camera. He works out of his home, and gets everything delivered to his door. And he’s visited daily by a nurse named Liz  (Hong Chau) who takes care of him, drops off food and keeps him company each day. They’re friends but also share a common history. She constantly warns him that his extreme weight pushes his blood pressure to dangerous levels — he may be dead in a matter of weeks — but Charlie refuses to make any changes to his diet or habits; it’s almost as if he wants to die. 

But his usual life is interrupted by some unexpected visitors. First a stranger, a young Christian missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins). Thomas walks through the door uninvited just as Charlie, who is masturbating to gay porn in his living room, has a blood pressure incident. Barely able to speak, he hands Thomas a piece of paper and tells him to read it aloud: it’s an essay on Moby Dick which is the only thing that can calm his racing heart, and possibly save his life. Later, another visitor comes by, a rude and foulmouthed  teenaged girl named Ellie (Sadie Sink). She is his daughter, who he hasn’t seen since he walked out of his marriage a decade earlier. She wants to know why he left her and why he never visits. Can Charlie reconcile with his daughter? How does he know Liz? Why is the missionary there? Why is one bedroom of his home kept permanently locked? And why is he so depressed that he’s committing slow suicide by overeating?

The Whale is an extremely moving drama about a day in the life of an isolated gay man who punishes himself for something from his past. It deals with his extreme physical disabilities;  in his 50s Charlie is less mobile than an old man, but his brain is as sharp as ever. Adapted from his own play by Samuel D. Hunter, it’s told theatrically in a series of acts all within his home, almost as if it were on a stage, with the players entering and exiting in turn. Each character has a history and a secret, eventually revealed, which adds great dramatic tension to the story. And the acting is superb, most of all Brendan Fraser. 

At the same time, the Whale Was clearly made to win prizes. I’ve seen enough movies to know when an actor uses prostheses (Charlie is portrayed wearing a “fat suit”) and plays someone with a disability — whether a mental or physical illness or handicap — you know it’s Oscar bait. The thing is, Fraser is clearly a good actor and has a natural heft to his body, so I don’t think he needed all this extra elaborate makeup and costume. What is disturbing is the degree if Charlie’s self-loathing: he practically begs other people to call him hideous, grotesque and ugly. The thing is, it’s all in his mind. He’s actually a kind and pleasant guy, not the monster he’s trying to be. Don’t confuse the character’s psychology with the point of the film. And aside from a truly gross binging scene, The Whale  is really a beautiful and tender film. 

Matilda

Dir: Matthew Warchus

Matilda Wormwood (Alisha Weir) is a little girl who has never been to school. Her parents consider her a burden, so she lives in a tiny room in the attic, and educates herself at the local mobile library, where the kindly Mrs Phelps (Sindhi Vee) gives her a pile of books to read each day along with sage advice. But everything changes when a truant officer shows up at her door ordering her parents to send her to school. She starts her classes the next day at Crunchem Hall, a scary gothic structure behind a foreboding metal gate. It’s ruled by the cruel Headmistress Agatha Trunchbull (an unrecognizable Emma Thompson), who treats it as somewhere between a boot camp and prison, not a place for fun and games or learning. Her strict rules are enforced by older students who serve as her henchmen. And woe to any student who is caught, or even accused of, disobeying. They might have their ears stretched, or their pigtails pulled by Miss Trunchbull herself. Or worst of all, they could be sent to The Chokey, a miserable, one-person jail, a dark, wooden shack festooned with chains and locks. No, not the Chokey! Luckily, there is hope.  Her teacher Miss Honey (Lashana Lynch) is as kind as the Headmistress is cruel. She quickly recognizes Matilda’s genius, and takes her under her wing. But the headmistresses is out to get her: she vows to break Matilda’s spirit and put her in her place. Will Matilda defy the Headmistress? And can she she outsmart her? Or will she end up in the Chokey?

Matilda is a fantastic kids’ musical, full of catchy songs and dances and a plethora of quirky characters within the huge ensemble cast, in the manner of Oliver! or Annie, but funnier. Based on the book by Roald Dahl, it’s full of Dickensian references but without Victorian morality to weigh it down: Matilda is a naughty girl who gets back at her tormenters with tricks of her own (She turns her father’s hair green and puts crazy glue on his hat brim.) Though it’s a timeless story, the art direction suggest a campy retro 1980s setting. Weir is a good Matilda, and Emma Thompson plays Miss Trunchbull to the hilt as an olympic hammer thrower, an intimidating fascist dictator, bedecked in khaki from head to toe. And Lashana Lynch is very sweet as Miss Honey. There’s also a story within the story, a fairytale about an acrobat and an escapologist; Matilda tells a chapter of that story to the librarian each day, like a modern-day Scheherazade. It’s very English, but with a nicely multi-racial cast. My only criticism is they occasionally get carried away with CGI effects, but not enough to spoil the film.

Kids will adore Matilda: the Musical, and I think grown-ups will too.

The Whale opens next weekend; check your local listings. Matilda is now playing theatrically in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and will start streaming on Netflix on Christmas Day. 

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

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