THIS FILM SEEMS to have been shown
on television in England and the US once, released to video (though
I have never seen a copy of the commercial release) and then
Shot on location in London, New York and Cambridge, the subject
of the story, an industrialist called Jock Mellor, has risen
above his working class roots to become a captain of industry.
We meet him on the day he is knighted; his secretary is inspects
him fondly (a relationship is hinted at) and sends him off to
pick up his family on the way to Buckingham Palace.
The moment we see Jock with his wife (Gemma Jones) and child,
we know that they are barely speaking, and in fact, following
an elaborate reception, the Mellors have a bitter row. It is
never made clear what has made her so angry, him so empty, their
little daughter so cold: their lives are hollow.
Sir Jock tries to connect with an old friend, but doesn't
succeed. He visits his father, who sits in a fusty parlor, far
more interested in the television than in the visit of his son.
They are worlds apart.
Mellor is taken ill (exhaustion? weltschmerz? a weak heart?
it isn't made clear) but only his secretary visits him in hospital.
His wife points out that he is 47 years old and has no friends.
On a business trip to New York, he sees his ex-wife, who takes
no interest in him, and spends a painful afternoon with his teenage
son who answers his questions with only a word or two, and seems
to have no curiosity about his life. Mellor's address to a gathering
of other businessmen, and later, an appearance on American television,
degenerates into a rave about the evils of the world.
In the midst of the television interview he becomes muddled,
abruptly leaves the set, falls to the floor backstage... and
dies. The last scene shows his father, as ever, watching television,
talking to his dog and turning to another programme as a news
reader reports the death of his son.
The performances in "Very Like a Whale" are fine;
the locations are interesting ... it's the story that lets us
down. We are not shown what's wrong, and the stifling air of
hopelessness and bad communication is distressing, and ultimately
rings false. Surely handsome and successful people like the Mellors
would divorce and get on with their lives, rather than living
in such pain.
The dust jacket of the playbook says that "... Very
Like a Whale is perhaps Osborne's best television play yet.
Its powerful theme, of a famous and respected man tearing his
life to bits, has the dramatic depth and pace of Osborne's major
plays." I disagree: if anything has been torn to bits, it
happened before the play begins: we see only the results.
The title, a quote from Hamlet, is the sort of literary
allusion that graduate students deconstruct; but Jock Mellor
is no Hamlet. In its US release, the film was called "Executive
Hamlet: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of
Polonius: By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.
Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel.
Polonius: It is backed like a weasel.
Hamlet: Or like a whale?
Polonius: Very like a whale.
Hamlet, Act III, Scene II
In the end, the main reason to see "Very
Like a Whale" is for the considerable pleasure of watching
Bates and Jones at work. As a dramatic work, it is minor Osborne. |||
Karen Rappaport, 7/01