REVIEW: Splendid performances elevate ‘The Whale’ from its many flaws

Fraser could win the Oscar, and he would deserve it, but it’s quite clear why the film was only nominated for its two performances and make-up and hairstyling.

Based on the play by Samuel D. Hunter, The Whale is the story of an extremely overweight gay man, whose condition has put his life at risk and he hopes to reconcile with his estranged daughter before he passes on. I haven’t seen the play myself, but watching director Darren Aronofsky’s film adaptation, I can already imagine it on stage. It is a story told within a single setting and the main character, Charlie, is so overweight that he struggles to move around his own home. I can even imagine that Charlie wouldn’t have to leave his couch (though a review I’ve read states that the play does involve Charlie getting up from the couch and showing the difficulties and challenges his massive frame sets before him). Even the narrative and the way by which it unfolds is very theatrical: characters come to visit Charlie and when they interact, more and more of the backstory is revealed – how Charlie got this big, why is his relationship with his daughter so fractured, and so on – and the information begins to collide and push us towards a climax.

I can imagine how powerful this would be on stage. Charlie’s story involves a past lover, his thoughts on religion and faith, his dedication as an English teacher, and his messy relationships with his ex-wife and daughter. It’s a powerful character study and it’s quite riveting to watch the different characters engage with each other. ‘The Whale’ has excellent actors on deck, which creates electricity in every scene. Brendan Fraser is incredible as Charlie. It’s a very physical role where every movement causes discomfort or pain. He is very aware of his condition – and the danger his body is in shutting down at any moment – and it fuels his need for some form of reconciliation with Ellie, played by Sadie Sink. Sink is a far better actor than she shows here in this film. She’s playing Ellie a little too big and too dramatic and isn’t giving us a range of emotions that she’s shown us she could do in her work in ‘Stranger Things.’ It’s not a nuanced performance that we’ve come to know of her. That nuance is delivered by Fraser, Hong Chau, and Samantha Morton. 

Chau plays Liz, Charlie’s only friend and a nurse, whose tough exterior and overprotective attitude regarding her friend creates some very powerful warm moments. Chau balances the concern and the love that a best friend carries and we can see all the history of these two characters in the way she deals with Fraser. As the story unfolds and we understand the full extent of their relationship, we see the brilliant tapestry of emotions Hong Chau weaves into her character and it’s no wonder she was nominated for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Samantha Morton, on the other hand, plays Mary, Charlie’s ex-wife. She’s got one long scene but the emotional peaks and valleys she crosses also betrays her character’s long history with Fraser’s Charlie. Things are said for the first time ever and it feels so spontaneous and real. 

It’s the performances that really elevate the movie. Watching Fraser and Chau and Morton and Sink (and Ty Simpkins as Thomas, a missionary from the New Life Church) play out these pivotal moments in Charlie’s life at this period in time allows it to reach a crescendo that had me in tears. I was crying and I was shocked because there was so many things I was resisting against in this movie. 

My first resistance was in the way by which Aronofsky captured Charlie’s obesity. There was no space for compassion in his camera work. We were made sure that we would see all of Charlie’s folds and layers. We were meant to ogle at every part of his body. There was no dignity at all and it felt very uncomfortable. The first few times was enough but the fact that the film does this throughout the 117 minute running time felt like we were meant to cast judgment on his obesity. As a play, there’s a distance that is created by the stage and the audience, but in film, the camera can get close and Aronofsky brings that camera really close and instead of being compassionate, I felt I was made to feel pity for Charlie. 


And maybe the play had more of a story involved but Charlie has an obsession of “the truth” in the essays of his students of his persuasive writing class. There is a running thread about how there’s so much “b#llsh!t in the world right now” and “no one says the truth” but never does this adaptation ever explain his attachment to honesty. It’s such a powerful story point at the end but it never really feels connected to all the other parts of the film – not it’s underdeveloped thoughts on religion and faith, nor its discussion on grief and depression, nor on forgiveness and redemption – so when the finale hits, I’m crying because the performances are so strong but it feels sort of empty.

On the surface, ‘The Whale’ can seem like it broaches so many important themes such as mental health, grief, discrimination and homophobia, and so on and you can be brought in by the strength of the performances of the cast, but when it is all said and done, it never really gets to say anything conclusive about the themes it opens up. Fraser could win the Oscar, and he would deserve it, but it’s quite clear why the film was only nominated for its two performances and make-up and hairstyling; because those are the only aspects of the film that really stick.

My Rating:

5 stars - Don't Look Up review


The Whale is now showing in cinemas nationwide. Buy your tickets here.

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