The Whale did something that films these days hardly ever do. When it was released in 2022 it opened small, in “limited release” in a handful of cinemas. It had done well at Cannes and at the festivals but no one really expected a film by Darren Aronofsky and starring Brendan Fraser – neither of them hot any more – to keep on growing, week on week. But it did, opening in more and more cinemas, until it was in 1,500 theatres on its sixth week, up from six on its opening weekend.
Word of mouth is what did it, and the word was that Fraser was exceptional as Charlie, a morbidly obese whale of a man whose vast bulk meant that at any moment he might drop dead from congestive heart failure, but who in the interim is being teased by the possibility of a reconciliation with his very estranged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink).
We meet Charlie wanking to gay porn, his hand down his joggers and his bulky body flowing over the sofa on which he is parked. When not masturbating, Charlie can barely move. He has a walker to help him get about the house and spends his days teaching online via Zoom (his laptop camera is broken, he lies to his students), eating vast amounts and being visited by Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse who turns out to be the sister of Charlie’s dead partner, the one he abandoned his family for, and the reason why Ellie is so furious with her bloated, sexually wayward dad. “You’re disgusting,” she says. “You’d be disgusting even if you weren’t this fat.”
The film was originally a play – and the one-room set would suit the theatre admirably – written by Samuel D Hunter, who based it on his own struggles with his sexuality and binge-eating.
Charlie’s size is a shock, and there is a crowd-luring freakshow aspect to the movie. But it isn’t enough on its own to make The Whale as compelling as it is. What does it is the simple either/or dangle that Hunter sets up early on. What’s coming Charlie’s way – death or redemption?
Fraser won an Oscar for his performance. Looking at his acting history, it’s strange how far he had fallen after being being almost a household name after the success of 1999’s The Mummy and its various spin-offs. But that was a long time ago and in the intervening years Fraser’s career had become a round of TV appearances, bad movies and voice work on animations.
But the Academy always likes a freak, and a tale of redemption (for the actor if not Charlie) and so maybe the Oscar was less of a surprise than it might have been. Even so, Fraser and his 136kg of prosthetics (a “fat suit” doesn’t quite cover it) loads Charlie up with compassion and presents a nicely drawn picture of a failed human being who might yet be saved. Around him the performances by the skeleton cast are also fantastic – Hong Chau was Oscar nominated as the tough, wise Liz. Sadie Sink should have been too – as the abrasively smart daughter she is firecracker good. And in a couple of brief scenes Samantha Morton (as Charlie’s ex-wife) reminds us she’s firecracker good too.
Everyone in this film is damaged in some way but mostly they’re all furious at the way life has turned out for them. This gives the whole thing an energy that you really wouldn’t expect from something that’s just shy of two hours long and set entirely in one darkened room.
Aronofsky’s achievement is to slide his camera around this space, adding a dynamic element to the drama without ever slipping into gimmickry. He keeps the possibility of a happy ending alive, while Rob Simonsen’s score does similarly invigorating things musically, diving into thriller tropes here and there, while Hunter’s simple day-by-day chapter divisions suggest a countdown aspect to the whole thing.
Will Charlie yet be saved? It’s a gripping watch.
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© Steve Morrissey 2023