The vast majority of the discourse concerning Darren Aronofsky’s drama The Whale has centered on the performance of lead actor Brendan Fraser. Rightfully so. As a morbidly obese man trying to find redemption in his dying days, he is phenomenal. Fraser brings out Charlie’s sadness, loneliness and selfishness, but also his kindness and unfailing optimism (regarding everyone besides himself). It is truly compelling and he has earned all the accolades/awards he receives. Less has been said of the movie featuring his work, yet it is almost as good as he is.
The Whale (113 minutes, minus the end credits), despite its title, does not treat its protagonist as a beast. In fact, Charlie isn’t the titular character. That would be a reference to Moby Dick, the subject of an essay he repeatedly revisits throughout the story (Charlie is a writing teacher). The narrative uses Ahab as a metaphor for Charlie, a man desperately searching for something that will give his life meaning. Although there are a few characters who weight-shame him, the screenplay does not mock him. It is a fine line. I can certainly see how someone sensitive to the issue would have a difficult time sitting through it. It definitely isn’t an easy watch. I found it to be moving, heartfelt and sympathetic, as well as sad, though reactions have been mixed. Either way, Brendan Fraser is worthy of every ounce of praise.
Charlie’s heart is on the verge of giving out on him. Mostly immobile, he never leaves his home, teaching remotely. His only companion is Liz, his nurse, who comes regularly and pleads with him to go to a hospital. Charlie knows he doesn’t have much time left, so he reaches out to his estranged teenage daughter in an effort to do one meaningful thing before he dies.
The Whale is based on a 2012 play by Samuel D. Hunter, who adapted it for the screen. It does feel a bit stagy; after all, the bulk of it takes place in Charlie’s living room. However, Aronofsky and his team do an effective enough job with actor movement and placement that it never becomes too distracting. Additionally, the strong writing goes a long way toward overcoming the single-set issue. Most significantly, the actors are so good that the limited space they are given is often made irrelevant.
Enough has been said about the greatness of Fraser, so I will focus on the other two major roles instead. Sadie Sink (best known as Stranger Things’ Max) plays Charlie’s daughter, Ellie, an angry young woman on her way to flunking out of high school. Ellie can be incredibly cruel to her father (as well as to Thomas, a missionary who decides he must save Charlie). Yet he did abandon her and hasn’t contacted her in nine years. Ellie’s softer side is hard to find, but Charlie always sees the best in everyone and is determined to get her to see it, too. Sink mostly shows the one-note, since that is what has been asked of her. She is very impressive when she is called on to dig deeper.
The second important supporting character is Liz, played by Hong Chau in a performance that deserves awards consideration (she also did strong work this year in The Menu, in a remarkably different part). Liz loves Charlie, cares for him, worries about him and is exasperated by him. She has great chemistry with Fraser. Their conversations suggest familiarity and trust, without the screenplay having to explain it. Liz’s protectiveness toward him is touching, providing wonderful contrast to Ellie’s combative reaction to him. I hope Chau does not get overlooked amid all the hype for Fraser, because she is excellent.
There is controversy surrounding The Whale. Some viewers won’t be able to look past the fat suit and will find the movie exploitative. Though I will not argue against that response, I do not share those feelings. Darren Aronofsky is a filmmaker who is not afraid to fully engage with whatever subject matter he has chosen. In this case, he is dealing with delicate material. He does so unblinkingly and not lacking sympathy, making sure we see what Charlie looks like, then see through it to the man inside. This is a fascinating production that will be remembered for its lead actor (it would absolutely be lesser without him), but it happens to be quite captivating overall.
4¼ out of 5
Brendan Fraser as Charlie
Hong Chau as Liz
Sadie Sink as Ellie
Ty Simpkins as Thomas
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay by Samuel D. Hunter