Darren Aronofsky has always been one to push the extremities of his characters’ limit throughout his career. Whether it be physical or psychological, they have all suffered past their breaking point – often to their own demise – and The Whale similarly submits to this trend, looking at an eating addiction spurned from depression.
From a literal point of view, The Whale could be utilised as a description of its central character – Charlie. In a transformative performance that has drawn as much mass acclaim as it has criticism, Brendan Fraser is undeniably grand in the role, and he commits to the oversized disgust of his character via convincing-enough – if perhaps dehumanising – prosthetics that expands his belly over his trousers and sees his jawline disappear into his neck, which loses its definition to his shoulders. He’s uncomfortable to look at, but Fraser injects a humanity that allows us to see the person behind the grotesque spectacle that Aronofsky so often leans on to further ride home Charlie’s pitiful figure.
From a literary point of view – and, by extension, a metaphorical one – The Whale largely incorporates Herman Melville’s 1851 novel “Moby-Dick” too, specifically looking at it as a source of inspiration regarding Charlie’s profession as an English academic. Teaching online college courses and claiming his webcam is broken, Charlie shies from revealing himself to his students, with only his nurse and lone friend Liz (Hong Chau, marvellous) his one source of honest companionship. The relationship between Liz and Charlie is born from another connection they both shared through Liz’s late brother, who we learn was Charlie’s partner and the catalyst for the breakdown of his marriage and why his daughter is estranged from him; Samantha Morton and a feisty, biting Sadie Sink also making an impression as his ex-wife and daughter, Mary and Ellie, respectively.
As Ellie, Sink navigates understandable disgust and contempt for her father, and whilst she’s not a pleasant character to spend time with, she’s necessary in driving home the reality of Charlie’s initial selfishness in loving someone else other than his wife. By no means does Samuel D. Hunter‘s script – based off his own stage play – ill frame Charlie’s homosexuality, but in a story where Charlie’s own nurse is essentially enabling him to eat himself to death – despite her pleas for him to go to the hospital – Ellie’s voice is the harsh tone of reality and reason.
The film’s stage origins are evident in the singular location used here – that of Charlie’s apartment – and whilst it effectively conveys Charlie’s isolation, there’s such a cold visual style that an already depressing state of affairs feels even more so. Fraser, Chau, and Sink’s performances all elevate the stale palette throughout, but the film threatens to further come undone through a side-plot narrative that means well, but ultimately remains entirely unengaging; Ty Simpkins – despite a good performance as a missionary – feeling out of place in the film, with his character trying to convert Charlie’s faith in his last hours of “need”.
The Whale is a movie that wants to believe it has a lot to say, but it’s trying to do so on topics that it doesn’t have any particular right to. Whilst I wouldn’t quite call it fatphobic, it doesn’t take any great steps forward in accepting obesity either. As a study within that subject, The Whale is a fail, but when looking at Fraser and what he’s able to inject into his character, it’s a fascinating study of a man who’s compiled of conflicting opposites; he lifts Ellie’s potential up whilst disregarding his own, and though he acknowledges his own flaws, he refuses to take accountability for them. He’s so richly complex, and it’s an absolute triumph of a performance from Fraser, whose own humanity is what ultimately allows The Whale to not entirely sink in its surroundings.
THREE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Whale is now screening in Australian theatres.