Whale of a TIFF

Cetaceans and cetacean-sized humans close out a great festival in Toronto

Broken friendships, strained families, frayed social contracts. TIFF was all about the yearning for connection, as one film after another revealed splintered people living in fractured times. If films are a mirror to society, then we’re clearly shredded. But we also seem desperate to sew up the rifts and make amends. The only question is how—and the best of these movies didn’t offer pat solutions.

This week, no one did befuddled bereavement better than The Banshees of Inisherin, a brutally funny, tragically sobering portrait of emotional severance and maniacal self-mutilation in 1923 Ireland. Martin McDonaugh’s follow-up to the Oscar-winning Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri imagines what happens when your closest buddy suddenly never wants to see you again.

‘The Banshees of Inisherin’.

Colin Farrell plays Pádraic, the spurned bestie, a sweet simpleton with a knack for the banal. And Brendan Gleeson is Colm, his gruff ex-friend whose suffocating sense of spiritual despair makes him despise anything trivial. The bewildered Pádraic can’t understand the freeze-out and won’t stop talking to him, until Colm gives him an ultimatum: leave him alone, or else he starts chopping off his own fingers. As civil war echoes in the background, Banshees shows how the wounded machismo and stunted spirituality of two rural townsfolk living on a coastal island reflect the inner turmoil of a country’s very soul.

Empire of Light, Sam Mendes’s latest period piece after the acclaimed World War One drama 1917, is an affecting if minor portrait of racial strife and mental health circa 1981 at a seaside movie palace on the south coast of England. Olivia Colman is the lithium-laced lonelyheart working at the candy stand; Michael Ward is the young black ticket-taker, newly hired and the only person of color on staff. As their unlikely romance begins to bloom, white predators circle: Colin Firth plays the lecherous boss who sexually abuses Colman at work, while Doc Martin-wearing skinheads trawl the streets looking for a tussle.

Another British film, Joanna Hogg’s superlative supernatural story The Eternal Daughter, trades social unrest and toxic workplaces for a tortured conscience. Tilda Swinton pulls double duty as both grown daughter as well as geriatric mother, as the former takes the latter to a remote, fog-shrouded hotel for a quiet birthday celebration. The grand inn used to be a private estate that the mom’s aunt used to own; and daughter coaxes childhood memories of her mom’s time there growing up. Hogg never reveals any other guests, though, and the daughter’s restless nights includes the occasional spectral sighting. The hauntings don’t stop there, as the eerie film slowly reveals the nagging sense of inadequacy that children feel towards their parents.

Making the biggest splash at TIFF was The Whale, another tortured parent-child drama which made waves at Venice the week before. Buzzy Oscar talk surrounds its lead, Brendan Fraser, whose radical transformation into a 600-lb shut-in is as eye-popping as it is eye-rolling. Strikingly for such a hot-ticket title, let alone one from an acclaimed director like Darren Aronofsky, the festival only showed it twice and severely limited ticket availability to journalists. Which meant the single 9am press screening was packed, with 250 people lined up an hour before it started.

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Brendan Fraser rocks the fat suit in Darren Aronovsky’s ‘The Whale.’

“I promise you’ll have a whale of a good time,” announced one of the TIFF volunteers. I didn’t. The Whale is a histrionic melodrama about a self-loathing homosexual trying desperately to reconnect to his troubled teenage daughter before eating himself to death. Never one for subtlety, Aronofsky puts Fraser into a Fat-Bastard-worthy prosthetic body suit and revels in the character’s indignities along with the story’s absurdities. Within the first five minutes, Fraser almost gives himself a heart attack after masturbating to gay porn before calming himself down by reciting a grade school essay about Moby Dick. And that’s before we get binge montages of him wolfing down Three Musketeers from his candy drawer and doubled-up pizza slices covered in mayonnaise. It’s a lot.

Fraser makes the most of the pathos, though, and remarkably delivers a committed performance amid all the grotesque lunacy. The very fact that people are taking him seriously despite being the star of a freakishly mawkish take on personal oblivion is testament to his undeniably compelling acting chops. You might even say he’ll make you blubber! Brace for an awards season full of fat-shame thought pieces and bad puns about gargantuan marine life.

You want a serious tale about aquatic mammals? The truly heart-stopping story at TIFF was Patrick and the Whale, a dazzling documentary by Mark Fletcher about marine videographer Patrick Dykstra and his adventures with a 30,000-lb sperm whale named Dolores. Former lawyer turned snorkeling adventurer Dykstra has spent years tracking down all species of whales, from humpbacks to blue whales, and developed an actual bond with some of them—winning their trust and curiosity, and even communicating with creatures that have the largest mammalian brains in the world. This tight, 72-minute feature doesn’t delve deep but showcases some of the most stunning underwater footage ever seen, offering a peek into the unfathomable mysteries of whale life. It’s a splendid experience, adding wonder and hope to the possibility of connecting with even the most alien lifeform.

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‘Patrick and the Whale’

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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