Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale is set over the crucial last days in the life of Charlie, an obese, reclusive professor, played by Brendan Fraser. Estranged from his ex-wife and daughter, his only human contact is Liz (Hong Chau), an overprotective friend, who is also a nurse. Teaching a writing course online, he doesn’t show his face even to his students. (Also read: Brendan Fraser sobs as The Whale gets 6-min standing ovation at Venice Film Festival, Dwayne Johnson praises him. Watch)
Since the death of his boyfriend Alan, Charlie has been burying himself in grief and food. He has been suppressing his emotions at the cost of his health, and now finds himself at a precipice. Suffering from a severe risk of congestive heart failure and high blood pressure, he refuses to go to a hospital, and instead focuses on mending his relationship with his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink).
But that is easier said than done as the resentful teenager hates his guts and only arrives to see her father upon the promise of money. While they try and fail to reconnect after eight years, Charlie struggles to make Ellie understand what she means to him. Meanwhile, Liz tries to protect Charlie from his worst instincts as he entertains a lost soul, a young missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins), alongside his meetings with Ellie.
Slowly, the screenwriter Samuel D Hunter reveals Charlie’s painful past – his marriage to Mary (the excellent Samantha Morton), his love for Alan and his decline into his current state. Adapted from Hunter’s own 2012 play of the same name, director Aronofsky restricts the main action to Charlie’s small apartment. Like him, we are stuck in the dark, dreary claustrophobic space. But that also means, the feature film feels very much like a stage enactment most of the time.
The pace of the film feels sluggish at times and when the film moves away to the younger performers, it loses some of its more meaningful impact. Sink’s Ellie is both petty and manipulative when dealing with people, and she often sees red when interacting with her father. But Ellie mostly felt like a cliché of a child of a divorce for me, despite Sink’s portrayal. Her vulnerability in the film’s final moments arrived too late in the story.
Fraser, as the self-deprecating but earnest Charlie, is astonishingly good in his Oscar-nominated ‘comeback’ film. Known mostly for his leading man and comedic roles in the past, he displays his dramatic abilities here. He leans into the physicality of the role, wearing prosthetics that show Charlie as a 600-pound man, with limited mobility. The actor has shown the unflattering side of Charlie’s binge-eating and he doesn’t hesitate to put it all out there.
Hong Chau as Liz matches Fraser in a moving performance. Her Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress is also richly deserved. After trying her utmost to help Charlie throughout the film, Liz tearfully states, “I don’t believe that anyone can save anyone.” He has the most honest conversations about himself with both Liz and Mary as they bare it all out, knowing the end is not far.
Unfortunately, The Whale can’t balance out the dark humour with the heavy emotional moments of the story. Moreover, the story feels a bit overdone, even as the main cast turn in masterful, emotional performances. The translation of the material from stage to feature film needed much more to be convincing. In some instances, the dialogues feel quite flat, while in others, they hit the mark. One can appreciate the actors’ worthy performances in an otherwise uneven film.
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