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USA 2022
Directed by
Darren Aronofsky
117 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Whale, The

You might call The Whale an amazing film. It is on the one hand a substantial addition to Aronofsky’s  remarkably consistent exploration of the tragic aspect of the human condition, one that began in 1998 with Pi and since then has taken us through the rigours of drug addiction, mental and emotional breakdown, parental angst, and bereavement just to name a few of the topics covered. Amazingly, despite the dourness of his Weltanschauung, with the particular help of Matthew Libatique who has been his cinematographer since Pi, his films are impressively well-crafted instances of provocative story-telling. But perhaps most amazing in this case, is that The Whale ever got made for it is a film that even fans who appreciate Aronsofsky’s contra-Hollywood aesthetic are going to find it difficult to sit through.

Brendan Fraser plays Charlie, a morbidly obese college professor who conducts online classes but blacks out his camera so students know nothing of his shocking appearnce. He lives alone in an apartment somewhere in Idaho. He has a long-term friend/carer, Liz (Hong Chau), who visits him daily and with whom he has a tacit agreement to let him, in essence, eat himself to death. He also gets visited by his estranged bolshie teenage daughter (Sadie Sink) and a young door-knocking missionary (Ty Simpkins) for “New Life”, a born-again Christian group.  The film follows the activity in the apartment over five days.

The Whale has divided US critics who have deemed it, simply put, either showing compassion for Charlie’s profound disability (whose roots appear to be an eating disorder run amok after the death of his gay boyfriend) or a misguided wallow in the repulsiveness of the situation. Both views are easy to justify though anyone with any sense would opt for the fofmer. Although not as effectively realized as Ellen Burstyn’s deluded pill-popping mother in Requiem for a Dream, 2000), the intention is clearly to awaken our sympathies for those stuck by the cruelties of fate. And really that applies to all the characters in The Whale each of whom is carrying one kind of cross of another including Charlie’s alcoholic ex-wife (a brief appearance from Samantha Morton)

This squabble perhaps derives from the fact that the film is based on a stage play by Samuel D. Hunter who also wrote the script. Aronofsky sticks close to the original staging and locates the action almost entirely in Charlies’ living room but with the probing camera bringing us uncomfortably close to the players the film can readily feeling voyeuristic. This tendency is aggravated by some of Aronofsky’s directorial choices such as having Charlie masturbate to gay porn or gorging himself on deep-fried chicken to the point of vomiting. Yes, the “yuck” factor of such scenes is intense and will, understandably lead many to cry: “Enough already”. Elvis’s infamous eating habits look mild in comparison.

There are also some mystifying features which may give rise to questions about Aronofsky’s intentions. For a start, given the many references to Herman Melville's ‘Moby Dick’, the film’s title has an almost comically literal tone. Then one might ask why does Charlie live in an upstairs apartment, one that he is thus effectively unable to leave and for that matter why does Liz buys him a wheelchair.  And finally, why is the word “amazing” used so many times by Charlie. He teaches creative writing for crying out loud! These are all things which would have been easy to fix, so what’s going on?

These annoyances aside, what carries the film are the performances. Doing the (once again, literally so) heavy lifting is Fraser, an actor who was well-known in the ‘90s for his chock-top entertainments but in the 2000s largely disappeared from sight. Whether or not he wins the Best Actor Oscar for which he has been nominated The Whale should do for his career what Alejandro González Iñárritu's Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) did for Michael Keaton’s. Whilst fraser's performance is both compelling and pognant, the support cast , bring an intensity to their roles that in combination generate a emotional potency underpinned by Rob Simonsen’s unsettling score, by which few will fail to be moved. My only reservation in this respect is in the casting of Sadie Sink. Whilst she plays the petulant teen well she seemed to me distractingly photogenic in this otherwise unrelievedly glum setting.

If you have any lingering hope of being entertained by The Whale you can forget about it but especially for anyone who follows the director’s career it should be a must-see. Everyone else would perhaps be better advised to wait for when it starts streaming.




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