Mozart and the Whale

“People with Asperger’s want contact with other people very much; we’re just pathetically clueless at it, that’s all”. (Donald Morton)

Mozart and the Whale is a 2005 film directed by Petter Næss and starring Josh Hartnett and Radha Mitchel. It’s based on a true story of two people with Asperger’s syndrome and their relationship.

Asperger’s syndrome is a form of a high-functional autism. It’s been somewhat popularized in media and pop culture in the last decade or so. Media image of the Asperger’s syndrome might easily lead to to the romanticisation or “othering” of people with Asperger’s. That’s why any film about characters with Asperger’s is dealing with a sensitive subject to say the least.

As a peace of art, Mozart and the Whale fails miserably. It’s a cross between a drama and a romantic comedy… and it doesn’t work that way. As if they tried their best to make this into a romantic comedy with quirky characters, but something went bad along the way. This is not just me: it’s been reported that there was some serious Executive Meddling, which resulted the director and the cast being quite unhappy with the final version. We can only hope to see the director’s cut.

Still, there are some excellent, brilliant things in Mozart and the Whale, which make you want to see the director’s cut even more badly. The characters are romanticized to an extend, but in a way, they are quite real, especially Donald Morton, an educated man with talent for numbers who works as a cab driver (it’s difficult, if not impossible, to find – and keep – a better paying job, and in first minutes of the film we learn it’s difficult for him to keep any job, period). He shares his apartment with 6 Cockatiel parrot. The flat is unkempt to say the least, because he never throws anything away, and moving things or cleaning the house makes him anxious. The finds comfort in numbers (to the exaggerated “magic ability” to instantly multiply and divide huge numbers).

He runs a small help-group for people with various mental conditions, and Isabelle is the new member. She has Asperger’s, too, but she is quite different than the shy, introverted Donald. She is loud, has obnoxious laugh, says inappropriate things (often involving sex) and can’t stand the sound of clinking metal.

So, they meet and their “getting to know each other” scenes provide most of the emotion in the film. After that, the film feels quite rushed (the film is too short to adequately portray the whole story arc: them moving in together, finding a decent job for Donald, their difficulties and fights, accepting each other – and themselves – the way they are). But there are so many sweet scenes that can be watched over and over again, so Mozart and the Whale is not a waste of time.

The best aspect of the film is, believe it or not, Josh Hartnett as Donald Morton. What he did with the character is unbelievable. It would be seen as a great performance for anybody, but for a pretty boy that didn’t seem more talented than Keanu Reeves on a bad day, it’s quite unbelievable. Josh Hartnett’s performance is far away from being perfect in technical sense, and it seems to be played on instinct more than careful preparation.

But it’s obvious he put a significant effort and dedication into this role, like no other before. Maybe the role just suited him, but he was so good you forget it’s him and it makes it seem you’re watching someone else… Or, in my case, that you’re watching yourself. There are as many ways Asperger’s syndrome can manifest itself as there are people with Asperger’s, but I could sure relate to this one (even though I don’t have the syndrome in strict sense of the word).

Sadly, the aforementioned executive meddling made Josh Hartnett refuse to promote the movie, which is a shame, because it’s worth a watch, and it’s a film in which he finally proves he’s not just a talentless heart throb, and that he can actually act. And be convincing. And everything that acting truly is.

I definitely recommend Mozart and the Whale, but I am not sure who’d love this film. Many people with Asperger’s seem to like it. But other than that, this isn’t light enough to be a romantic comedy, and is not too well structured to be taken seriously as a drama. So it makes Mozart and the Whale somewhat unfitting for anybody. But there are still good elements, great elements, so I truly recommend this movie. I know it made me feel good and it made me re-watch it, and it made me appreciate Josh Hartnett as an actor. And that’s not an easy thing to do.


Mozart and the Whale on IMDb
Review at WrongPlanet (online resource and community for Autism and Asperger’s)

9 thoughts on “Mozart and the Whale

  1. Alee

    Oh, this seems like a good movie. I’ll have to add it to my ever-growing-list of movies to watch.

    Josh Hartnett would be perfect for this role. :)

  2. Mira

    No, it’s not a good movie, I’m afraid. It’s worth a watch, but it’s a missed opportunity.

    The story was there, the characters were there, the acting was there… But something went wrong in the process. I think they tried to make it into a romantic comedy, but it didn’t went well. Too bad.

    Josh Hartnett would be perfect for this role. :)


    He was excellent here, that’s for sure. His acting tends to be quite wooden, and it helped here, I think. He’s so good in this role, it’s scary.

  3. Alee

    Well, if not good, then interesting? I’ll take interesting. :)

    I thought Josh would be good for the role because he seems a bit shy and socially awkward.

  4. wanderlust82

    There is another movie, similar to this called Adam. I’ve not seen either films but Adam looks good :

    I’ve worked with clients who have aspergers so that is where my interest lies. My friend is a behavioural therapist who works with autistic children, and she likes Josh so I can let her know about this one. Also, for ANOTHER film on a person with autism you can check out Temple Grandin with Claire Danes. I watched that recently and enjoyed it. It is a true story.

  5. Mira Post author


    Well, if not good, then interesting? I’ll take interesting. :)

    Well, some scenes are excellent (and I play them over and over again), but the film as a whole is a mess. Still worth a watch, though.

    I thought Josh would be good for the role because he seems a bit shy and socially awkward.

    I’ve noticed that, too. For some reason, I expected him to be highly extroverted, egoistical and narcissistic. I guess it was just the image/media hype?

    I think the roles that suit him are those “emotionless” ones, be it socially awkward people or psychopaths- he was really good as Hugo in O (a modern interpretation of Othello, set in a high school). He should stay away from the action or romantic leads and do more cold, awkward and psycho characters; it’s where he’s at his best.

  6. Mira Post author

    Welcome, wanderlust!

    I’ve seen “Adam”, and it’s about a man with Asperger’s and a neurotypical woman. Hugh Dancy was excellent in his role, but the movie suffered from same problems as “Mozart and the Whale” (though it was never meant to be a romantic comedy): it felt a bit rushed and the editing was weird.

    What I like about all those different portrayals is the fact they show different ways Asperger’s manifests itself. So I don’t think judging which is the “most accurate” make much sense. As far as I know, both films are well received among people with Asperger’s.

    I haven’t seen the film about Temple Grandin. I’ve heard about her, so I might check it out. It’s interesting to see another portrayal of a female person with Asperger’s.

  7. wanderlust82

    Thanks, I’ve been reading your comments on other blogs and finally clued in that you had one too.

    Ending films well is always a problem but I’ll check them both out. I read on Alee’s site you saying you were border line Asperger’s I’m no expert but I don’t think it is possible. You may have tendencies that are similar but people with autism their brains opperate a certain. The movie Temple Grandin actually does a good job to explain these differences.

  8. Mira

    Ending films well is always a problem but I’ll check them both out.

    It’s not just the ending (the ending in Adam is ok); the whole thing is a problem. Both movies feel rushed, like they cut at least 20-30 minutes of good material. So the overall impression is: blah.

    Which is bad, because both movies had potential.

    I read on Alee’s site you saying you were border line Asperger’s I’m no expert but I don’t think it is possible.

    I was wondering about that, too. As far as I know, there’s no consensus on the matter. Some experts claim that autistic people do have a brain that is wired differently, while others believe autistic and neurotypical people are just two opposites of human condition, and, in theory, you can fall anywhere in between.

    (Just like many experts claim there are no “heterosexual” or “homosexual” people per se, so you can fall anywhere in between).

    I will have to watch Temple Grandin movie, but I must admit I am a little scared. I love cows, ans as far as I know, she worked in the livestock industry. I sure don’t want to see animals slaughtered, in a humane way or not. If you watched the movie, please tell me if there are such scenes in it.

  9. wanderlust82

    Well I do believe there is heterosexual and homosexual but a spectrum or scale sorta like what Kinsey developed. I don’t think we are 100% one or the other. I suppose this can work for autism as well.

    In Temple Grandin there are no slaughter scenes. There is a scene I think where a cow dies (if I remember correctly) but that isn’t graphic or by slaughter. She worked in the industry to make it as humane and efficient as possible.

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