Writer: Samuel D. Hunter
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Brendan Fraser is often seen as the unlucky bridesmaid when it comes to movies, as he’s never really been given the meaty roles that would allow him to show off his talent and win major awards. But with The Whale that has changed and his performance as an obese housebound English teacher is certain to put him among the best actor nominations in the Academy Awards next year.
Wearing a prosthetic suit, Fraser’s performance is the kind that wins Oscars. It’s an intense, verbose and a physically demanding role. It’s a shame that the rest of the film doesn’t match his performance. Based on a play by Samuel D. Hunter, who also writes the screenplay, The Whale remains stubbornly theatrical. The whole film takes place in a single apartment. Director Darren Aronofsky could have expanded this limited world, but sensibly decides to restrict the story to mainly a single room to emphasise how the main character is in a kind of prison. Indeed, the brief flashbacks to a sunny beach seem very redundant, and add little to the narrative,
Only able to walk with the help of a frame and with stairs going up to his front door, Charlie is trapped by his obesity. But worse, what really keeps him inside is his shame to be seen. He always asks the nightly pizza deliveryman to leave the food on a table outside in order that he doesn’t have to answer the door.
But enough people do come through the door during the five days in which The Whale is set. First of all is Thomas, the young man from New Life a religious cult based in the small town in Idaho where the film is set. Played to perfection by Ty Simpkins, Thomas is eager to convert Charlie, especially when he hears that Charlie is dying. Thomas has come like an angel to save his soul.
Also giving an excellent performance is Hong Chau as Liz, Charlie’s nurse and his best friend. Watching Liz care for Charlie – she also brings him family buckets of fried chicken – one can sense her struggle for a balance of anger and sympathy. When she does shout, she feels bad. She wants him to go to hospital, but he says that he can’t afford it. The weary resignation on Chau’s face cuts at the heart of her character.
With these three people, The Whale could easily be an intriguing battle with Thomas and Liz on either sides of religion and rationality, but Hunter brings in two more characters which turn an excellent film into a just a good one. Sadie Sink plays Ellie, Charlie’s teenage daughter still angry at her father for leaving her and her mother for a man, one of Charlie’s ex-students. Ellie is such a nasty, bad-tempered, angry young woman that she quickly becomes a caricature and the film loses its sincerity. Sink eyerolls and barks most of her way through the film and leaves not one redeeming aspect. Her mother declares that her daughter is evil, and it’s not hard to disagree with her.
In a surprising turn, Samantha Morton, plays Ellie’s mother, Charlie’s ex-wife, and she snaps, and she huffs, and she criticises. All the yelling might work on the stage, but here it seems laboured. Fortunately, there is a scene where Morton’s character lays her head on Charlie’s chest; she’s listening to Charlie’s wheezy breathing but for a second it looks like a sign of affection.
To make things worse, Charlie refuses to see the bad in his daughter; perhaps this is to make him look noble rather than pathetic, but it seems highly unlikely to happen in the real world. If only Ellie showed glimpses of being a nicer human being, or if only Charlie registered some disdain for his daughter’s invidious behaviour then the viewer might have some sympathy for at least one of them
Some may say that the title is offensive, but The Whale also refers to Moby Dick. Charlie works as online English tutor, and seems to have kept an old essay as a kind of talisman. When he needs to get his breathing under control he reads the essay out aloud, savouring the idea that the novel’s more boring sections are the narrator’s attempts to hide his own sadness. And sadness is what Fraser is best at in this film. And he just about carries The Whale home.
The Whale is screening at this year’s BFI London Film Festival