As a documentary, Linda Saffire and Adam Schlesinger’s Restless Creature: Wendy Whelan isn’t so much a film about the life story of ballerina Wendy Whelan, but a snapshot of the end of her career. It’s a tactic that thankfully keeps the movie from falling prey to an endless parade of talking heads, but it’s not quite as an engaging an approach as I’d like.
A lot of this has to do with the topic. It’s obvious that the filmmakers are close to Whelan and care a lot about not just her career as a whole, but what she has to say about herself. Unfortunately, this doesn’t leave much room for context, especially for someone (like me) who’s unfamiliar with Whelan’s body of work. Restless Creature struggled to hold my attention. It’s the flaw inherent in all documentaries, that the ones piecing this all together have a much more ingrained fascination with their subject than the general moviegoer. This is definitely a film for the already initiated.
The pity in all of this is that there were moments early on in Restless Creature where I thought, just maybe, the film might overcome its borne-in issues. It is, after all, a film rooted in a generally universal archetype, about the aging master battling that inexorable march of time in order to go out on her own terms. The film opens with the 47-year-old Whelan getting surgery on her hip, questioning whether or not she’ll ever dance at the level she wants to again, then following her through the agonies of the long, arduous rehabilitation process. Dance, to her, is obviously the only thing she’s ever known — she speaks of forgoing relationships and motherhood for her career — and much of the film is her slowly coming to grips with the fact that her body can only take so much more.
On paper, this could be riveting stuff, but it never quite bridges that gap. There’s an obvious tumult inside Whelan early on in the film. She tries to put on a brave face, but she’s not good at burying these feelings. When she’s obviously struggling with these emotions, Restless Creature is at its most human. But it’s not a trait that the film’s able to sustain. As it becomes obvious that all of her obstacles would be overcome, the film begins to lose its dramatic tension, wandering around a bit till it finally gets to its climax.
Again, the problem of the filmmakers being more enamored with their subject than most people are is a problem, since the movie feels as if it goes on just a bit too long. None of this makes Restless Creature unwatchable; it just means that you’re only going to get the most out of it if you’re already interested in Whelan or ballet. Unrated. Now playing at Grail Moviehouse.