The Whale (LFF Review) – Brendan Fraser Anchors This Heart-Breaking Tale

DIRECTOR: Darren Aronofsky

CAST: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Samantha Morton, Ty Simpkins, Sathya Sridharan

RUNNING TIME: 117 mins

CERTIFICATE: TBC

BASICALLY…: A 600-pound man (Fraser) attempts to make amends for his many mistakes in life…

NOW FOR THE REVIEW…

This review of The Whale was conducted as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2022.

Whilst introducing his new film The Whale to the packed audience at my London Film Festival screening, director Darren Aronofsky half-jokingly declared his film to be a comedy. Now, I know that there’s been a lot of discourse surrounding this film since it debuted at Venice last month, but anyone who’s still a bit sensitive to the idea of a film about a 600-pound man eating himself to an early grave making waves as a potential awards contender might just lose their minds over the fact that audiences are also supposed to find it funny, according to the filmmaker himself. Yes, there are humorous moments in it, but the central idea is far from a laughing matter; this was honestly a movie I had been anticipating and slightly dreading ever since it was first announced, because as someone who’s also struggled with weight issues throughout my life (though nowhere near as much as the central character does), I was honestly worried about how it would handle a subject that brings about a lot of scrutiny and shame in today’s society. So, hearing Aronofsky’s comments before the film finally rolled, I felt as though my fears were about to be confirmed.

Thankfully, though, The Whale is not nearly as harmful or insidious as it easily could have been. It treats its subject matter with honesty and integrity, and it boasts one hell of a leading performance that is sure to carry it all the way through the upcoming awards season. It’s not a perfect film, but the fact that it didn’t make me feel ashamed or even embarrassed for being of larger build is all that I really needed.

Aronofsky’s film is adapted from Samuel D. Hunter’s play of the same name (the playwright also provides the screenplay), which takes place almost entirely in the apartment of a reclusive English teacher named Charlie (Brendan Fraser). He is severely overweight, spending all his free time chowing down on pizza, fried chicken, candy and sandwiches, which has left him unable to even stand on his swollen legs without the aid of a walker, and even more significantly with dangerously high blood pressure (238 over 134, to be exact) that is enough to finally kill him. Resisting the urges of his nurse friend Liz (Hong Chau) to call an ambulance, Charlie instead uses his final days to right the most significant wrong in his life: making amends with his teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), who some years ago he abandoned along with her mother Mary (Samantha Morton) for one of his male students, who has since died. Needless to say, Ellie is still pretty angry at her father, but he nonetheless resolves to break through to her one final time before his time is finally up. There’s also a religious missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) who frequently shows up from time to time, but more on him later.

There’s plenty to say about The Whale, but no matter what can be said about it, whether it’s positive or negative, nothing – and I mean absolutely nothing – can take away the fact that Brendan Fraser is magnificent in this film. There’s something so wonderful about seeing this actor, beloved by many throughout the 1990s and 2000s for films like The Mummy, George of the Jungle and Looney Tunes: Back in Action, having this career resurgence after an extended period away from the spotlight, and as Aronofsky previously did with Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler (the Aronofsky film that is closest in spirit to The Whale), he centres his film around the actor in ways that make him shine greater than he ever did before. Draped in a mix of heavy (no pun intended) prosthetics and CG trickery, Fraser embodies the traits of someone struggling with morbid obesity – from the wheezing breath to the sudden heart palpitations – but crucially never makes his character the butt of any joke. Charlie is an intelligent man, someone who knows exactly what his glaring faults are but has resigned himself to his fate, and he constantly sees the good in almost everyone, even the most awful people he encounters. You really do sympathise with him as he attempts to fix things one last time while he himself puts the brakes on his own life, and Fraser’s natural likeability as a performer shines through at all times, while also leaving you on the verge of tears at several points due to the sheer power of his emotional monologues. If this is indeed Fraser’s comeback, then this really does mark a new chapter in this actor’s life and career, and it’s a pleasure to welcome him back.

That being said, there are things about the rest of the movie that don’t work quite as well. This is one of those stage-to-screen adaptations where you can blatantly tell it was originally a play, given the singular location and long-winded dialogue that explains more than the actual filmmaking does, which Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique shoot competently but aren’t as heavily ambitious with their visuals as in their previous collaborations. There are also some discrepancies in Hunter’s screenplay that are brought over from his play, including the addition of this missionary character and his own sub-plot involving some stolen money which doesn’t feel entirely necessary, and seems to only exist to bring the film to nearly two hours. Then, there are other supporting characters who are pretty hard to stomach, especially moody teen Ellie who is, as even admitted by other characters in the movie, to be absolutely horrible; she constantly hurls such vile verbal abuse to not just her father who abandoned her years prior, but to others who really don’t deserve it, to a point where she becomes so irredeemable that you’d rather Charlie not waste his final days with this utter nightmare of a person. Sadie Sink’s performance is solid enough to where you feel this character’s ruthlessness in every infliction of her dialogue, but she is written to be so unlikeable that it makes some of the later emotional moments between her and her father feel a bit unearned.

As much as I was initially worried about this film, it was slightly relieving to not have it be as damning or mean-spirited as it all too easily could have been (those who do engage in such shaming, namely the daughter, are called out for it). Instead, The Whale turned out to be a moving, if imperfect, study of mortality and redemption that just so happens to be about a 600-pound man on the verge of death, and played brilliantly by an actor who deserves all the attention he can get.

SO, TO SUM UP…

The Whale is a moving and thoughtful character piece that is occasionally hindered by its stage origins and certain characters who are hard to stomach, but it is anchored by an exceptional lead turn by Brendan Fraser.

The Whale does not yet have a UK release date, as of publication.

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