The Whales of August: 30th Anniversary Special Edition

Studio: Kino Lorber Studio Classics

Jan 04, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


It's unusual that director Lindsay Anderson would go, in five short years, from the biting, socially conscious gonzo comedy of Britannia Hospital (his third and final feature in the "Mick Travis trilogy" with Malcolm McDowell, which that yielded If.… and O Lucky Man) to a tender, somewhat sleepy drama about the trials and travails of old age and family. Whales of August, though, is the proverbial proof in the pudding. While indeed a world apart from much of what came before, it's a sturdy, tender dramatic work, even if the bulk of its appeal is owed to its principal cast: Bette Davis, Lillian Gish, Vincent Price, and Ann Sothern, each in more or less the final lap of their respective storied careers.

Davis and Gish play Libby and Sarah, widowed sisters who have vacationed at the same beach house in Maine for over half a century. Libby, blind and bitter, is stridently opposed to doing much of anything to improve her or her sister's lot, figuring they're both on their way out the door. The two spend most of their time together, but Libby is rarely very kind to Sarah, and much less so to their myriad houseguests: Sarah's childhood friend Tisha (Sothern), the local handyman Joshua (Harry Carey Jr.), and the suave Russian suitor Mr. Maranov (Price, chewing scenery even at his most understated) all find themselves subject to Libby's barbs. Whenever she can get away, Sarah watches the shore nearby in hopes of catching a glimpse of the titular whales, even as she is constantly reminded that they haven't made an appearance in the region in years., This vain search represents, of course, Sarah's longing for greater excitement, more engagement, a freer life; Sarah privately wishes to be free of her responsibility to Libby, but knows that she would have nowhere else to go. Is blood thicker than the water lapping nearby, the same water where the intriguing, endearingly chivalrous Mr. Maranov fishes every day, seemingly feeling some longing of his own?

If it sounds like the sort of thing nonprofit arthouse theaters would book to please their elderly donor base, well, that's not too far off the mark. That said, Anderson's direction here is sensitive and empathetic, and Mike Fash's photography is strikingly expansive and warm. As mentioned, the cast is a treat to watch, as one might expect of such historic scene-stealers. Little is done to make the dialogue feel less theatrical (it was originally written for the stage), but even that is not without its charm. The digital restoration is crisp, the warm-washed color palette vibrant and evocative of the season.

There's little of Anderson's trademark bite in The Whales of August, so fans of his earlier work might be disappointed. That said, if you meet it on its own level, there are ample rewards to be reaped. Maybe the whales never show up, but a point comes where one can't help but root for Sarah to catch that one last glimpse.

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