Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale has the ingredients for a deeply problematic film, but instead, we are served a deeply moving, triumphant drama about a man connecting with his daughter.
I was prepared to hate The Whale. On paper, it seems the kind of film that would make me furious; firstly, it’s a film about a fat man called The Whale. Secondly, they’ve put an actor in a grotesque fat suit which seems like an open invitation to be disgusted by him. Yet, I found myself blubbering by the end, having been deeply moved by the story and the treatment of the characters.
The film opens with a shot of Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a morbidly obese man, masturbating to gay porn on his sofa. As he climaxes, he experiences what seems like a heart attack as he clutches his chest. A missionary just happens to come by, and he hears Charlie’s struggle and helps him until Liz (Hong Chau) arrives.
Charlie is completely bound to his small house and permanently keeps his camera off from the students he teaches at the online university. His estranged, distraught and angry daughter Ellie arrives at his door, and Charlie is desperate to reconnect with her, knowing he is dying of congestive heart failure.
I was not prepared for the level of craftsmanship and empathy that is present in The Whale. Regardless of everything else, Aronofsky directs his film with masterful strokes, composing an intricate harmony of image and sound. The score by Rob Simonsen is magnificent, amplifying our emotions and bond with Charlie.
For a very long time, it seems like we are supposed to be disgusted by Charlie. He eats whole buckets of fried chicken with eagerness, grease coating his fingers and dripping down his chin. He nearly chokes on a sandwich because he was eating too fast.
Later, it becomes clear that these scenes aren’t so much for us to build an image of Charlie but to understand how he feels about himself. Those feelings of self-disgust are bubbling under the surface throughout The Whale, but they fully erupt towards the film’s end. The days, displayed at the bottom corner of the screen, are like a countdown towards the inevitable.
As good as Aronofsky’s filmmaking is, this is Brendan Fraser’s film. A budding star in the late 90s and early 2000s, his career never recovered after he came forward about his experiences of sexual abuse in the industry. Where we now support victims, especially women, there was very little support for men like Fraser back in the day, which only makes his return so much sweeter.
Fraser’s immensely moving, momentous, career-defining performance is a true triumph. As Charlie, he is fully committed to portraying an authentic human who never recovered from a terrible loss and turned to food to cope. The tone in which Fraser speaks as Charlie talks of his late partner is gentle, as if talking about him too loudly, too harshly, might open up another wound he won’t be able to close. And Charlie has enough of those to deal with.
The supporting cast is equally good, if helplessly in Fraser’s shadow. Sadie Sink is all fire and brimstone as the perpetually angry Ellie, while Hong Chau nearly steals the show with her layered performance as Liz. While we mostly sob and grieve for and with Charlie, Liz is also grieving the loss of her brother, Charlie’s partner, and now Charlie, who is slowly but steadily dying. Chau beautifully portrays Liz’s frustration, anger and devastation at losing everyone close to her.
To show how serious Charlie’s situation has gotten, medically, Fraser was put into a fat suit. Some of it was done digitally, and he towers over everyone else in the film. It feels like overkill, but maybe this isn’t how Charlie really is. Maybe this is just how he sees himself. Ultimately, the film’s biggest letdown is the script. Based on a play, The Whale can be a little stagey and often hammers home the message too forcefully.
You may ask, what is the whale in The Whale? It’s not a dig at Charlie’s physical shape. I pondered whether it might be dead or perhaps a form of redemption. Maybe Ellie is the whale the Moby Dick-obsessed Charlie is chasing. Maybe it’s all of the above. Maybe it doesn’t matter. What matters is that The Whale is a difficult, heart-breaking, masterful film. Welcome back, Brendan Fraser; we missed you.
The Whale screens at the BFI London Film Festival on October 11.