The Whale


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Whale
"A film that often lacks subtlety in its execution despite the performances and impressive make-up craft." | Photo: Courtesy of London Film Festival

In 2017’s Mother, Darren Aronofsky used a house as a setting, where the characters just kept on coming like an onslaught until there was no room to breathe. Now, he’s back in a virtual single-room setting which barely needs more than one character to fill it - the near-43st Charlie (Brendan Fraser).

Chamber settings, by their nature, let the acting echo out and Fraser’s central performance speaks volumes about his character’s history, as he brings a wounded fragility to the fore as Charlie, a teacher whose grief has led him to pile on the pounds to such an extent that they are now an existential threat. That Charlie views himself as more of an empty space than a person is emphasised from the start as he conducts a lesson over Zoom, claiming the webcam is broken so that his pupils see only a black screen rather than his face. He demands honesty from his students and takes refuge in an essay about Moby Dick that grows in signficance as the film rolls along but, as a metaphor, like much in the film is laid on rather thick.

Charlie’s seeking of comfort in food is evident from his weight but the way he is pictured tucking into pizzas and subs leans into this rather obviously in a film that often lacks subtlety in its execution despite the performances and impressive make-up craft. This is Samuel D Hunter’s first bash at a feature screenplay and it could have done with some roughing up in the retelling as the staging often drifts towards the mannered - characters suddenly stopping as they grasp door handle or reach for something, in ways that happen a lot on stage but rarely in real life.

An unexpected visitor as Charlie finds himself on the cusp of what he believes may be a heart attack emphasises his vulnerability. The knock at the door has come from Thomas (Ty Simpkins) a wet-behind-the-ears would-be missionary, who soon sees Charlie as ‘a cause’. Thomas is the weakest character in a film that could actually have done without him, given that the backstory that is gradually revealed feels forced in the retelling. Better, is Charlie’s best friend and the sister of his deceased partner, Liz (Hong Chau, bringing a harder edged version of grief that sparks well off Fraser’s softer portrayal).

Through the course of a week in which Charlie’s health continues to decline, we’ll also see him attempt to reconnect with his daughter Ellie (Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink, who though good should be careful she doesn’t get permanently typecast as an ‘angry teen’), after he fractured their relationship by leaving her mother (Samantha Morton) for another man. The prosthetics work on Charlie is expertly realised, particularly in a shower scene, and Fraser also ‘sells’ Charlie’s struggle with his weight well. But the drama is also increasingly lumbering and, ultimately, weighed down by too much sentiment.

Reviewed on: 03 Feb 2023
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The Whale packshot
A reclusive English teacher living with severe obesity attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter for one last chance at redemption.
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Director: Darren Aronofsky

Writer: Samuel D Hunter

Starring: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Samantha Morton, Ty Simpkins

Year: 2022

Runtime: 117 minutes

Country: US

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