Mozart and the Whale is a film adapted from Jerry Newport and Mary Newport’s autobiographical book Mozart and the Whale: An Asperger’s Love Tale.
By Nils Skudra
I first watched the 2005 film Mozart and the Whale several years ago and have since viewed it numerous times. I just saw it again recently and felt moved to offer my perspective on the film drawing upon my experiences as an advocate in the autism community and as the president of Spectrum at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro (a campus organization I co-founded for students with autism). The film’s insights on autism significantly resonate with my own interactions with individuals on the autism spectrum, and it provides a heartwarming but keen lens into the ways in which having autism can shape a romantic relationship between two people who share the diagnosis.
The film revolves around Donald Morton (aptly portrayed by Josh Hartnett), a cab driver in Spokane, Washington who has Asperger’s Syndrome (commonly referred to today as high-functioning autism). He leads a small support group comprised mostly of young adults with varying degrees of autism. Donald is a mathematical savant who can instantly come up with the correct answer for very difficult equations and who resorts to thinking in numbers in any given circumstance, whether during his cab route or in a casual conversation. Clearly, this functions as his particular way of not only determining how to approach a particular situation, but it also serves to calm him down in moments of extreme anxiety. At the same time, Donald struggles with significant social challenges that include difficulty in making eye contact; discerning whether other people are interested in what he is saying (exemplified during the film’s opening scene in which Donald consistently expresses his mathematical thinking to two passengers who are locked in their own conversation and paying him no mind); and responding appropriately to certain social situations. This is demonstrated during the aforementioned scene when Donald accidentally drives into a flower truck, spilling its contents all over the front of his cab, and promptly leaves the scene without addressing the angry demands of the truck owner or the needs of his puzzled passengers.
Donald’s life takes a turn on this same day when he meets Isabelle Sorensen (depicted by Australian actress Radha Mitchell), a hair stylist who shares his Asperger’s diagnosis and is a musical savant with a superlative knowledge of pieces by Mozart and the emotions that they convey. Isabelle also exhibits many of the traits associated with Asperger’s Syndrome, including a tendency to speak her mind directly as thoughts come to her; to take certain statements literally; and possessing an unusually keen attention to detail and organization. She initially gets off on the wrong foot with the group when Gracie, a differently-functioning member who specializes in presidential history and constantly smiles even when discussing unpleasant topics, laughs uncontrollably after hearing Isabelle’s story of being raped as a teenage hitchhiker, prompting an angered Isabelle to argue with Donald about his handling of the group and how she is perceived by them, saying “I’m weird, but I’m not strange.” However, when she tells him that he is missing her point, Donald replies “No, I’m not! I just – never know what to say.” This response causes Isabelle to reflect for a moment and then laugh out loud, stating “Neither do I.” The revelation of this common trait thus serves as a catalyst for the ensuing ultimately romantic relationship between Donald and Isabelle.
Sometime later Donald decides to take Isabelle to the group’s Halloween party but procrastinates for hours, uncertain about dressing in his whale costume while Isabelle, dressed up as Mozart, waits in the mall. She finally arrives at Donald’s apartment and convinces him to accompany her, whilst displaying a liking to his whale costume which, he explains, “expresses who I am.” They subsequently start dating, with Donald taking Isabelle to the fairgrounds and openly revealing more about how his mathematical thinking proceeds in a visual process. However, the date nearly becomes a complete disaster when Donald takes a turn at metal ring toss, prompting Isabelle to have a meltdown in which she screams “Stop it!” and holds her hands to her head, bobbing back and forth in order to calm herself down since she is terrified by loud noises. This episode prompts a crowd to gather around her in bewilderment until Donald, who has forgotten her previously mentioning her fear, suddenly comes to her aid and quickly whisks her off to his apartment.
As their relationship unfolds, the different Asperger’s traits that Isabelle and Donald exhibit periodically precipitate conflict between them since Donald is used to having his own particular often unorganized routine while Isabelle believes in order and perfection. This is manifested in the approach that Isabelle takes toward Donald’s apartment, organizing his newspapers in neat stacks, cleaning up the kitchen and putting its implements in their proper places, throwing out Donald’s dirty bath cover and replacing it with a new one, all of this albeit without his consent. When Donald arrives home, he is panicked to find the apartment arranged completely differently from the disorderly manner that he had previously kept it in, and loudly blurts out “You stole my life!” Although Isabelle meant to impress Donald by organizing his apartment and her intentions were good ones, his being accustomed to his own domestic arrangement is something that she failed to take the importance of into account. This prompts him to go into the apartment parking lot, reciting the numbers methodically from the different license plates and coming up with information about them in an effort to calm himself down. While he eventually comes around and accepts the new arrangement, this clash of personality traits, together with Donald’s and Isabelle’s respective attitudes toward being on the autism spectrum, continually poses a challenge to their relationship throughout the film.
Both Hartnett and Mitchell deliver superbly nuanced performances in capturing the different characterological and behavioral aspects of Asperger’s Syndrome and display a warm chemistry together. One of the intriguing points that the film delves into is the attitude that people on the autism spectrum take toward their diagnosis, a factor that constitutes a major issue of contention between Donald and Isabelle. After Donald secures a job as a data analyst at the local university, he tells Isabelle that he wants everything to be “all nice” (i.e. “normal”) for an impending dinner visit by his boss. This makes Isabelle indignant since she has no qualms about being herself as an autistic individual, and during the dinner she makes no effort to disguise her behavior, talking incessantly about her music interests, her personality and her plans for the new house that she and Donald have rented together, even while she chides Donald’s frequent interruptions as “very autistic.” Following the dinner, Donald and Isabelle engage in an intense argument in which he criticizes her for giving his boss the impression that they are “crazy.” This prompts Isabelle to declare that Donald wants to be normal and is scared of having people see who he truly is.
The perspectives articulated by Donald and Isabelle in this scene illustrate a stark dilemma that many people in the autistic community struggle with. For some individuals, the desire to fit in can lead them or their family members to make efforts to hide their autism, such as shunning the company of other people on the spectrum and choosing not to disclose their diagnosis when applying for a job or hanging out with neuro-typical friends. This has been pertinent to my own life since my mother initially did not tell me about my Asperger’s diagnosis because of her concern about stigmatization from my peers and the suggestion from the doctors at that time that I might require institutionalization. However, many other individuals view autism as part of their identity rather than something to be ashamed of, pointing to the innumerable intellectual and characterological strengths that it gives them in comparison to neuro-typical individuals, and consequently are proud of displaying their true colors. The aforementioned argument between Donald and Isabelle profoundly exemplifies this, and their difficulty with reconciling these divergent viewpoints threatens to tear their relationship apart.
All told, Mozart and the Whale is a superbly and sensitively crafted depiction of a romantic relationship between two people on the autism spectrum. The film not only captures the numerous factors that affect all romantic relationships, but its portrayal of the role that autism can play in such a relationship is especially compelling. The commonality of having Asperger’s Syndrome serves to bring the two protagonists together, but their different characterological traits constitute a catalyst for tension between them. Furthermore, the problem of reconciling Donald’s desire to blend in with Isabelle’s contentment with her identity as an autistic individual poses a major challenge to their prospects of maintaining a sustained relationship in which both can be happy.
While neuro-typical viewers who see the film may come away with new insights about the similarities and differences with respect to the factors that shape a relationship between autistic partners, viewers on the spectrum will be able to identify strongly with the issues that confront the characters, and the experience may provide them with a fresh perspective on how to navigate a successful relationship with partners who share their diagnosis.
“I am an artist on the autism spectrum, specializing in Civil War/Reconstruction history as a second-year graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and I have been drawing hundreds of Civil War-themed pictures since the age of five and a half. As a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, I have a very focused set of interests, and the Civil War is my favorite historical event within that range of interests. It is therefore my fervent desire to become a Civil War historian and have my Civil War artwork published in an art book for children.I am also very involved in the autism community and currently serve as the President/Head Officer of Spectrum at UNCG, an organization I founded for students on the autism spectrum. The goal of the organization is to promote autism awareness and foster an inclusive community for autistic students on the UNCG campus. The group has attracted some local publicity and is steadily gaining new members, and we shall be hosting autism panels for classes on campus in the near future.
I have also been pursuing a side career as a freelance journalist, and I have had at least 8 articles published in local magazines and newspapers from various cities and towns in North Carolina and in Pittverse Magazine (based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), which is staffed entirely by people on the autism spectrum. I am very keen on contributing articles as a regular blogger for the Art of Autism. Among my ideas for article topics are my experiences with disclosing my diagnosis in the workplace; and local businesses which are staffed by people on the spectrum and which donate their proceeds to autism causes. Through these blogs I hope to highlight the issues of autism’s portrayal in film, the challenges of discrimination that autistic individuals encounter in the workplace, and to promote support for local organizations that are dedicated to autism causes.”