At the 2006 U3A/NFT Older Women in Films Study Day the focus film was The Whales of August. The film at the time was not available on DVD or Video but the film group had watched a copy from the TV. We all found it touching.
At the time I was struck by the lined faces and beautiful white hair of Bette Davis and Lillian Gish . I was struck by the fact that disability was represented. I was struck by the fact that fear of death was so openly expressed but also how to overcome it.
In July the film was released on DVD and we viewed it in the film group (see report under resources). A number of critics write that ‘nothing happens’ in the film. If the psychological journey from fearing death and giving up, to coming to terms with the idea of death and carrying on is nothing, then indeed nothing happens in this film. Viewing it again I think that this film is a gem about ageing not appreciated enough. It does not flinch from looking at reality and provides enormous visual pleasure. It is subtle and beautiful.
Anderson’s masterful direction and Berry’s extremely rich dialogue show a deep understanding of being old that few films have achieved. It seems to me that this is the result of considering time and contradictions throughout.
TIME: The film covers 24 hours in August in the life of two aged widowed sisters, Libby and Sarah. The first scene, two and a half minutes long, opens with the sea at high tide, a house on top of a cliff and introduces the main characters as young women. They have spotted the whales passing by on their migration. The idea of time as circular is also signalled in this way. This is a sepia sequence. It fades into full colour to bring us to the present and a view of the sea with the tide bell ringing high tide. Throughout the film frequent cuts from one scene to another dwell on the sea, the sky, the garden. These shots show the sea at low or high tide, under the bright sun or the moonlight and last from 2 seconds to up to 15 seconds. In contrast when the camera pans in the house a clock and photos have prime of place. The distant past is often referred to by old photos, recollections by the sisters, referrals to their mother, and Sarah’s habitual conversations with her dead mother and husband. The more recent time is also alluded to in a conversation about the death of Philip, Sarah’s husband, 46 years previously. Time has a circular quality that is hinted at by the title. August is the time when whales pass by on their migration. The young women see the whales in the first sequence and the last scene shows the two sisters on top of the cliff waiting for them.
Inside/ Outside : The sunny blues and green of nature are set against the warm deep reds, burnt orange and browns of the interior and its cluttered furniture. And at night the darkness of the interior is set up against the bright moon and light reflections in the water, the candlelight and Sarah’s blue dress.
I will first briefly mention the aged men who also provide contrasting features. Count Maranov is a flattering, pleasant, extremely polite gentleman looking for a place to live: ‘I have spent my life visiting friends’. He talks about his past in Russia at court. Joshua on the other hand is still working as a builder/plumber. He is extremely noisy. He brings news from the village and talks of retiring because the newcomers are not pleasant. He has a new partner.
Tisha is the sister’s childhood friend. Physically she is very different from the sisters. She is plump when the sisters are thin, her face is made up and without obvious wrinkles, it is topped by a mop of curly red hair. She has arthritis and walk with a stick. Her cheerful disposition and her concern about Sarah are ambiguous. Is she trying to get between the sisters? She brings blueberries that she has just picked but pushes the bowl out of Libby’s reach. She suggest to Sarah that she should consider selling the house and coming to live with her since Libby shows signs of senility. She invites a realtor to view the house. Is the story of losing her driving licence genuine or as suspected by Libby an excuse to stop driving because of her cataracts? (I note also that the mention of a friend getting a hearing aid raises some laughs )
The two sisters and their relationship: they are very different as declared by Sarah. Both have lost their husbands. Libby : Only one clue indicates that Libby is the older of the two (a childhood recollection from Libby). Physically Libby is disabled. She is blind, and her face and gait indicate that she had suffered a stroke. She has long white hair that she compares to her mother’s or swans who mate for life. She talks emphatically, dresses soberly and spends her time reading (Braille) or demanding help from Sarah. She is not emotionally demonstrative: ‘no need to make whoopee every other minute’. She is astute as Maranov says when she tells him not to expect shelter from them. She has recently been depressed by thoughts of being abandoned by her sister and dying. These worries are expressed early in the film ‘everything dies sooner or later’ and develop to the climax of her nightmare.
Sarah: she was a nurse and cares for her sister with extreme patience and good will. She is a ‘romanticist” says Maranov. Libby :’ You are always busy, busy, busy’. She is seen hanging the washing, dusting, preparing food, making soft toys for the village fete, painting. She gets on with her chores while talking to her dead husband with whom she shares her worries. She would like to have a picture window installed to have a better view. The next day is her anniversary and she prepares to celebrate in the evening. She picks one white flower for truth and one red for passion. She is seduced by Maranov charm and tales of a noble past. This gives rise to a brief moment of romance under the moonlight.
The sisters’ relationship: a sisterly mix of closeness and conflict. They spend the winter in Libby’s house, the summer in Sarah’s house. Libby’s daughter is not interested in them. Libby has supported Sarah for 15 years after her bereavement and now Sarah cares for Libby. But this balance is disturbed very early in the film when Libby refuses to have breakfast. Later Libby says that she will die like her husband in November and Sarah reminds her that it is still August. Further expressions of Libby’s insecurity are allayed by Sarah who reassures that she will be there for her as long as she needs her. Sarah confides in Tisha that her sister has started to talk about death. Later that night as she celebrates her anniversary with the roses, a portrait of Philip, a glass of wine and ” Roses of Picardy” on the gramophone she says “I do not know what to do about Libby. She will not have the picture window, she says we are too old, our lives are over. I do not think I can manage her much longer”. Libby bursts into the dark room a ghostly appearance, all in white, her hair dishevelled in utter panic. She dreamt that Sarah was going to fall off the cliff . She grabs her sister and says: ‘He is here, and he is here for both of us’. For the first time we witness Sarah’s strength. A firm NO and disengagement from Libby’s grasp : ” You can choose death if you like to but life is not over for me…. I am going to bed.”
Libby left on her own, realises that her sister was thinking of her husband and wishes her in her absence a happy anniversary. She then sits in the rocking chair. Her tragic, old face and neck are pitilessly photographed. Fade to black… It is the crucial moment when Libby understand her sister’s feelings and rebellion. In the morning, she accepts breakfast with good grace. Sarah’s determination and strength are expressed for the second time in the next scene with Tisha and the realtor when she puts both firmly in their place and the saying ‘crossing bridges…’ is uttered for the second time in the film. When Libby consents to the picture window being ordered the sisters are together again and walk hand in hand to the point. Sarah: “the whales have all gone” . Libby: “you never know”.
I have not dealt with the good humour of the sisters and their friends, their laughs and gossip. I have not looked at the way each shot is beautiful framed, or mentioned the music. For me this film is one of the most sensitive films about women and age. But it needs a careful analysis of image, text and music that mesh together to make a deep comment on the complex feelings about time, love, nature and old age.