The Whale *****
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton
Director: Darren Aronofsky
There are certain directors that you could trust to direct the phone book and produce a masterpiece. Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan, Requiem For A Dream) is one of those directors. Here he works his magic with the film adaptation of the play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter. And by God, his magic works.
In a career-best performance, Brendan Fraser (The Mummy, Tarzan) stars as Charlie, a reclusive 600lb English professor who teaches online. Having gained weight following the death of his boyfriend, he is cared for by Liz (Chau - The Menu, Homecoming), a nurse who is also his only friend. Refusing to go to hospital, he is at extreme risk of heart failure, something door-to-door missionary Thomas (Simpkins - Jurassic World, Insidious) witnesses first hand. Knowing that his time is limited, Charlie tries to reconnect with the teenage daughter (Sink - Stranger Things) that he abandoned when she was eight after he left her mother (Morton - In America, Sweet And Lowdown) for a man. Over the course of five days, these four characters come and go in Charlie’s dingy and claustrophobic world, forcing him to confront all the loose ends of his tragic life.
Fraser has been completely transformed with prosthetics, with suits weighing 300lbs. There is a real authenticity to his role; a kind-hearted but extremely damaged man whose Achilles heel has become his downfall. But while Fraser does much to instil deep-seated humanity within Charlie, Aronofsky works counterpoint, using the multitudinous tricks in his arsenal to depict the looming monstrosity of his food addiction. Framed like a horror film, food is never far away, lurking in the corner of the frame, waiting to be consumed, devoured, inhaled. In sequences in which we see Charlie feeding, he shovels pizza, candy, chocolate, sandwiches into his mouth faster than he can chew, gulping thousands of calories in mere seconds. The music is unsettling. The camera angles jar. Food is the monster that possesses this otherwise charming man.
The Whale could easily have been simply a tear-jerker, but Aronofsky ensures that the ugliness of Charlie’s fatal flaw is presented front and centre, unflinchingly immodest and painfully undignified. There’s no doubt that you feel for Charlie, whose situation is as dire as it is distasteful. But there’s something wonderful about the scenes between him and Thomas, who has over-eagerly identified Charlie’s sexuality as his affliction, not his gluttony. In a late scene, after all the misery we’ve seen play out thanks to the choices he’s made, there’s something utterly satisfying about seeing Charlie summon the strength to stand up for the one thing he is proud of; the love he continues to hold for his late boyfriend.
The religious element forms the other side of The Whale’s coin. Of course it’s about obesity, but it equally exposes the psychological damage caused by organised religion’s condemnation of sexuality. And though the film occurs entirely within the confines of his apartment, Charlie’s world is rich with vivid absent characters whose zeal has led him to this moment. And the supporting cast is strong too, with Sink and Simpkins proving their mettle, while Hong Chau is equal parts acidic and warm, creating a gloriously balanced character that has seen her - alongside Fraser - receive a well-deserved Oscar nomination.
It’s fairly obvious that The Whale is adapted from a play, tending toward the theatrical at times, but with a clutch of remarkable performances and a truly accomplished script, this is drama at its absolute finest. Add to that Aronofsky’s unmistakeable flare and you have a recipe for cinematic magic. It might be the director’s most restrained film, but there’s beauty in its subtlety and horror in its nuance. Simply put; this is a feast of a film.
UK Release: Out now in cinemas, released by A24