THE WHALE

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Stars: Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, Sadie Sink, Samantha Morton.

The Whale: Morbidly optimistic, Brendan Fraser's comeback is hearstopping  drama. - A Rabbit's Foot

Oscar nominated director Darren Aronofsky revived Mickey Rourke’s career in 2008 with his film The Wrestler. Rourke was nominated for an Oscar for his performance. Similarly, Aronofksy has brought Brendan Fraser back out of the cinematic wilderness with his latest film The Whale. In the 80s and 90s Fraser headlined a number of box office hits, including films like The Mummy, but then his career mysteriously imploded and he spent the better part of the last decade languishing in television series. As with Rourke, Fraser has received an Oscar nomination for his comeback.  

Fraser plays Charlie, who teaches an online creative writing course. He encourages his students to be bold and honest in their writing, but he is hardly being honest with them. He keeps his own camera switched off to hide his grotesque physical appearance. He is morbidly obese (he weighs some 270kg) – he has trouble standing and even walking with the aid of a Zimmer frame – and he spends most of his time sitting on his couch. He regularly orders in pizzas. He is not in the best of health as he also suffers from a congenital heart disease. He wheezes and sweats profusely, but he steadfastly refuses to go to the hospital despite his carer’s urging. Since the death of his lover Alan he has let himself go physically. 

Charlie is regularly visited by his late boyfriend’s sister Liz (Hong Chau, recently seen in The Menu), an acerbic, sharp-tongued nurse who checks his blood pressure and systems and berates him about his physical condition. Charlie is also visited by Thomas (Ty Simpkins, from Jurassic World, etc), a young missionary who wants to bring the word of God to Charlie, but he also has a shameful secret of his own. Liz dislikes him because she believes that his church’s religious beliefs killed her brother.  

But then Charlie is surprised to receive a visit from his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink, from Stranger Things, etc) whom he hasn’t seen or heard from in the decade since he abandoned his family to live with Alan, a former student. Ellie is failing at school and wants Charlie’s help in writing her essays. Charlie seizes this opportunity to reconnect with Ellie and assure himself that he has done one thing right in his life. 

The Whale is based on the semi-autobiographical 2012 play written by Samuel D Hunter, who has adapted the drama for the screen. The play deals with themes of loss, grief, regret, family, guilt, redemption and second chances, but it retains its theatrical origins though as much of the drama is confined to Charlie’s cluttered, untidy, squalid, gloomy, under-lit and claustrophobic apartment. The film has been nicely shot by his regular cinematographer Matthew Libatique, whose camera constantly moves around the apartment and circles Charlie. Libatique has also shot the film in the boxy academy format which adds to its claustrophobic feel. 

The title not only refers to Charlie’s size and his grotesque look, but it also refers to an essay that Ellie has written analysing Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick and its theme of obsession and humanity, and the price of being an outsider.  

Buried beneath a prosthetic fat suit, Fraser delivers a superb, career best performance as the self-destructive Charlie, capturing his angst, his frustration, his sense of regret, his self-loathing and increasing awareness of his own mortality, and he brings a hint of vulnerability to the character. It’s also a performance laced with a strong sense of empathy and compassion towards his repulsive character. Chau is solid as Liz, and imbues her character with strength and resolve, but also a sense of compassion. And Sink is strong as the rebellious, angry and misanthropic Ellie who struggles to understand Charlie and his choices. Samantha Morton makes the most of her brief appearance as Mary, Charlie’s ex-wife in an emotional confrontation. 

The characters in The Whale are all somehow flawed and seem to be wallowing in self-pity, but thankfully Aronofsky’s more nuanced direction avoids over sentimentality and mawkishness, giving the material a dark and harder edge. 

★★★☆

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