The Whale: a miraculous Brendan Fraser narrowly saves this dolorous dirge

Though it struggles to escape its own theatricality, and suffers from a disappointing denouement, Darren Aronofsky’s latest film is ultimately redeemed by the performances of Fraser and Hong Chau.

11 October 2022

By Jessica Kiang

Brendan Fraser as Charlie in The Whale (2022)
Sight and Sound

For a film that portrays a man in the throes of a very deliberate suicide-by-obesity, Darren Aronofsky’s schematically sentimental but undeniably effective The Whale works hard to avoid being morbid. Perhaps that’s because, despite the minor, somewhat incoherent controversy that greeted Brendan Fraser’s casting – prompted by the news that the star would be performing in a CGI-assisted body-adjustment suit to bulk him out to the required 600-pound physique – the film either deftly sidesteps or simply has little to say about body-shaming, fatphobia or binge-eating disorders. Here, obesity is not the story, it’s a symptom, and its real-world relevance is largely eclipsed by Fraser’s performance, which is, despite frequent cardiac events and palpitations, a steady-beating heart.

This tear-softened, heavenward gaze of a film may be trapped in a dingy Idaho apartment as surely as Charlie (Fraser) is trapped inside his failing, mutinous body, but believes with sincerity, disingenuous though it may be, that it is in our power to be freer than our shackled circumstances and lighter than our heaviest burdens. Within that framework, Charlie’s enormousness, especially as worn by an oddly radiant Fraser, becomes not an object of horror or pity or derision, but a self-created obstacle on his self-ordained hero’s journey. Charlie’s social withdrawal and lack of mobility might interfere with any reconciliation between his estranged daughter and the Moby-Dick he is to her, and that is the potential tragedy here; all else is padding.

Introduced to us masturbating wheezily to gay porn – Aronofsky may be on kinder form than ever before but he is still Aronofsky – Charlie is a shut-in (though Matthew Libatique’s paradoxically roomy camerawork never feels similarly constrained) who conducts college literature courses online, claiming his laptop camera has broken so he can’t be seen, and whose emotional eating started after the passing of his beloved partner and former student Andy. That he left his wife (Samantha Morton) and his now-teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink from Stranger Things, 2016-) to be with Alan is the great hurt he inflicted, for which he now must atone. And soon, because, as his blood pressure climbs to astronomical new heights, his only friend, Alan’s sister Liz (Hong Chau), eyes him narrowly and with her nurse’s briskness announces that without hospitalisation – which he steadfastly refuses – he will not see another week.

Let’s talk for a moment about the great Hong Chau. The radical realness of her is especially noticeable here, when the rest of the supporting cast, spouting the theatrical dialogue of Samuel D. Hunter’s script (adapted from his own 2012 play), rarely seem like they actually exist outside the drab walls of Charlie’s apartment. Ellie, lured by the promise of money and help with homework, is a resentful brat so one-note it’s impossible to imagine what she’s like when not seething with spite at her “disgusting”, ceaselessly adoring father. Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a missionary from a local Christian cult who ingratiates himself into Charlie’s life in the hope of racking up a score on the ‘souls saved’ leaderboard, seems similarly contrived to wink out of existence the second he leaves the house. Even Samantha Morton, who is electrifying in her one scene as Charlie’s bitter, alcoholic ex-wife, gives off a crackling energy that is abruptly extinguished as soon as she’s not onscreen.

Only Hong Chau’s Liz brings the world in with her, creating a character whose life outside seems real, and whose every quick, decisive gesture is the anguished resolution of an argument between her duty to respect her friend’s wishes and her desire to keep him alive. There may be no more moving moment in The Whale, certainly not its glibly transcendent ending, than when, following another argument over Charlie’s refusal to seek medical help, she hands him a bag of meatball subs as a peace offering, following it immediately with a resigned, exhausted, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” 

A little more of this affectionate but fraught relationship would have been welcome – one can imagine a two-hander that would get into the weeds of Charlie’s delusions and compulsions, and of Liz’s enabling, in a far more provocative way. But The Whale isn’t here to provoke: it’s here to bear witness to the beatification of a saint, who has mortified his flesh in a non-traditional manner but has nonetheless attained a purity of soul that few actors could convincingly portray. Fraser does, which makes The Whale worth all its other contrivances, and marks the movie’s true miracle.

► The Whale is one of the Gala films at the 2022 London Film Festival; it is screening on 11, 12 and 14 October.

Other things to explore

reviews

All You Need is Death: hallucinatory horror captures the alchemical power of Irish folk ballads

By Roger Luckhurst

All You Need is Death: hallucinatory horror captures the alchemical power of Irish folk ballads
reviews

The Book of Clarence: a messy, genre-blending Biblical epic

By Arjun Sajip

The Book of Clarence: a messy, genre-blending Biblical epic
reviews

If Only I Could Hibernate: a beautifully crafted Mongolian drama

By Tom Charity

If Only I Could Hibernate: a beautifully crafted Mongolian drama