Mild spoilers ahead.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably at the very least heard about Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, the film that has resurrected the career of Brendan Fraser and now has him lined up to win every award going. I was fortunate enough to get to see the film prior to the UK release date thanks to a preview screening at my local cinema, what I witnessed was something that will be on my mind for a very long time.
The Whale focuses on Charlie, (Brendan Fraser) a morbidly obese English teacher who is confined to his house and doesn’t do anything except his online lectures and eating himself towards an early grave. When he has a health scare, it prompts him to try and reconnect with his estranged daughter before it’s too late.
The Whale is a deeply uncomfortable watch, the film deliberately uses a 4:3 aspect ratio which squeezes Charlie into every shot, it’s incredibly claustrophobic and it only emphasises the size of this man, he takes up a huge amount of space in every single frame he is present in and it makes the audience feel a sense of sympathy and pity towards this poor, pathetic man. Charlie has a very toxic relationship with food and often engorges on anything and everything he can get his hands on, every moment this occurs is harrowing as the audience is forced to watch this man self-destruct in what is usually a grotesque manner. Fraser makes every binge session look almost feral and it is heartbreaking to watch. As an audience member you just wish you could somehow intervene and make him stop, but you just have to watch the hopelessness of the situation, every single time it happens.
So let’s address the thing everyone is talking about, the performance of Brendan Fraser… It’s phenomenal. Fraser deserves every heap of praise he receives for this film and he should clean up every Best Actor award out there. His performance is so raw and incredibly powerful. He brings such humanity and likability to the role of Charlie that it makes everything that occurs throughout the film all the more heartbreaking, it’s like watching a loved one fall apart in front of you. Even with everything that is going on, Charlie has moments of innocent positivity that is almost child-like in delivery, it should be sweet, but it just made me feel more sad. It’s genuinely one of the most captivating performances I have ever seen. The performance coupled with the incredible prosthetics meant that I often forgot I was watching Brendan Fraser act, he was just Charlie. As far as career resurrections go, this is probably the best.
The supporting cast are also fantastic, Hong Chau is brilliant as Liz, Charlie’s nurse who quite clearly loves him but is also worn down by his stubbornness to not help himself, which in turn means she is an enabler to his behaviour, creating a vicious spiral that will undoubtedly infuriate audience members. Sadie Sink shines as Charlie’s estranged daughter Ellie and Ty Simpkins is great as Thomas, a Christian missionary who wants to save Charlie from himself. Brendan Fraser will rightfully get all the headlines, but this supporting cast should also get the plaudits they deserve because without them, this film doesn’t work and I don’t think we get such a good effort from Fraser, they bring the best out of him, and he brings the best out of them. It’s one of the best-acted films I’ve seen in a while and everyone involved should be incredibly proud of what they have achieved.
This is a film for cinema lovers, it’s arty, it’s a multi-layered deep character study and a disturbing insight in to the dangers of self-destruction and not looking after oneself. But, if you’re a more casual viewer, it’s hard to recommend this. It’s a strange juxtaposition but I’m hoping you may understand what I mean by this – I loved this film, but I didn’t enjoy it all. It’s not much fun, it’s very depressing and it will make you feel a whole range of emotions. It’s extremely difficult to get through and there isn’t much joy by the time it’s over. There’s plenty of room for deep analysis here and it’s something that will stay with you, for sure, there were a lot of tears in my screening and I’m not surprised whatsoever. For me, that’s what I want to see more of in cinema. There are too many films these days that are instantly forgettable, but every so often something comes along that has a profound impact and you just know you’re going to be thinking about it for a very long time, The Whale is one of those films.
It’s not going to be for everyone, but if you are like me and find this kind of cinema meaningful, then you need to see this. Just prepare to leave a little bit broken inside!
I give The Whale an 8.5/10.