- Colin Fraser
THREE AND A HALF STARS Will a morbidly obese man find redemption before he eats himself to death?
DRAMA US English #THEWHALE
Starring Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink
At the heart of this forceful drama from Darren Aronofsky (BLACK SWAN) is an astonishingly compassionate performance. Much has been made of the return by Brendan Fraser (who might argue he’s never been away), an actor who’s always at his best in the dramatic sphere, and when he’s good (think GODS AND MONSTERS) he’s amazing. Aided in his quest for Oscar glory by layers and layers and layers of incredibly realistic prosthetic, it’s the man behind the makeup who’s doing the lion’s share of the work.
Adapted from a play by Samuel Hunter, THE WHALE recounts the final days of a morbidly obese man. Weighing 270kg, Charlie is housebound, can barely walk, binge-eats delivery pizza and earns a living as on online tutor, camera always off. He’s cared for by his late boyfriend’s sister Liz (Hong Chau) who resents every minute that Charlie refuses hospital care. She also resents the arrival of a young evangelist who won’t take ‘go away’ for an answer. His church killed her brother and is the source of Charlie’s problems argues Liz and she could be right. Then Charlie’s estranged teenage daughter turns up. In short, there’s a lot of heightened emotion.
One could argue there’s too much emotion, and much of it the wrong kind that leads to a production that is overwrought, overplayed, over-styled. It’s easy to see that point of view; Hunter doesn’t stray too far from the roots of his play, keeping the story enveloped in the grimy gloom of Charlie’s dank apartment. It’s an obvious thematic ploy, rather like the constant referencing to a student’s essay about Moby Dick from which the film’s title and various themes emerge. It’s not exactly subtle, but then Aronofsky has always been one to direct the audience as much as he does his film.
Yet despite the obvious framework of THE WHALE, within the content there’s a lot humour and warmth to be found. The missionary arrives just as Charlie appears to be having a masturbation-induced heart attack - sounds grim but is a funny, sitcom-worthy setup. There’s also a challenging sense of self-awareness about the characters that, again, Aronofsky serves unabashed. None of these people are particularly likeable, wallowing in either self-harm or self-pity, sometimes both. Consider the damage Charlie is doing to those around him for the most selfish of reasons; he’s the least likeable of them all. There’s no doubting Fraser’s significant talent makes this repellent boy-man in any way engaging, perhaps even compelling (if for all the wrong reasons). But is it Oscar worthy? Well that’s a whole other conversation.
When Charlie tries to re-engage with his precocious, and bitter teenage daughter (a strident performance from Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink), another source of resentment for Liz, the heart of Hunter’s play opens out. In short, Charlie wants to know that he did one thing right with his life before he dies. It’s what makes THE WHALE such an intriguing redemption story, one steeped in the emotionally triggering entitlement and self-absorption of our times. Whether you forgive Charlie his extraordinary indulgence is polarising and exactly reaction the Aronofsky is looking for.