Some people will hate The Whale, some people will love it. But if you are lucky, you will be one of the people who both love and hate it. That’s a rollercoaster worth the ride.
Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is entombed in both his body and his apartment. Reclusive, morbidly obese, and refusing to show himself on camera for the online writing classes he teaches he faces the last days of his life. He has congestive heart failure and is refusing to go to hospital for treatment. Instead, he stays at home self-sabotaging with more junk food. His carer LIz (Hong Chau) is the sister of his late male partner, dead from suicide. Charlie is trying to reconnect with the daughter Eliie (Sadie Sink). He abandoned Ellie when she was eight years old to live as a gay man and her mother, his ex Mary (Samantha Morton), has kept them apart for years. Meanwhile, door-to-door missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins) has set himself the goal of saving Charlie’s soul in time for the imminent end of days.
It’s quickly apparent that The Whale, directed by Darren Aronofsky, is adapted from a play. The claustrophobic single set, a dirty living room strewn with food debris, touts its theatrical origins. Nothing is shown outside the apartment and the dialogue is littered with exposition about how the characters came to be in the situation they are now. Surprisingly, this is one of the strengths of the film. The characters reveal things about themselves that throw assumptions into the air, making them much more interesting as people. Each character is introduced as a stereotype, which falls away over time and gives a meaningful arc to their presence. Charlie is more than a pathetic loser; he has an optimism that all the other characters lack. Mary is not just a bitter ex-wife; she is participating in an alliance of choice. Ellie is not simply a dumb rebellious teen, she may either be someone much cleverer or much more sinister. Perhaps. The revelations come quickly when they happen, creating the tension of uncertainty.
The flaws in the film are gratingly evident. Some of the dialogue falls flat on its face. At one point Charlie, who is desperate to believe that his own choice to live authentically was valid, calls out to his online students to write something truly honest. Their responses are honest, but completely lacking in the pathos needed to make them dramatically appealing. When Charlie says they are amazing, it really requires them to be amazing to not sound silly. It isn’t . While Charlie is adequately played by Brendan Fraser It is the most overtly symbolic character, he represents human anguish, and the weight of that symbolism is, ironically, too much.
The sense that The Whale is a parable does have a beguiling force. Repeated references to the bible and Moby Dick ensure that the sense of allegory pervades. They are both tales of humanity’s attempts at redemption, the overpowering desire to shed the flesh or rid the world of a body that haunts you. It brings needed layers of complexity to the film. However, the idea that this is a big star, choosing an unflattering role for awards season, is inescapable.
Off screen there has been controversy about Fraser donning ‘fat face’ and the decision to cast a heterosexual actor in a gay role, again. Leaving this aside there is enough within the film to cause plenty of debate about its merits. But it is an accomplished journey and quite satiating in the balance of light and dark moods, and the obstacles each character overcomes in their journey.
Review by ANDREW HEBDEN
Queerguru Contributing Editor ANDREW HEBDEN is a MEDIA & CULTURAL STUDIES graduate spending his career between London, Beijing, and NYC as an expert in media and social trends. As part of the expanding minimalist FIRE movement, he recently returned to the UK and lives in Soho. He devotes as much time as possible to the movies, theatre, and the gym. His favorite thing is to try something (anything) new every day.