By Nina Vekua, MA Film and Television
Darren Aronofsky’s new film The Whale (2022) starring Brendan Fraser, whose Hollywood comeback has been a huge part of the conversation surrounding the film and resulted in a 6-minute-long ovation at the Venice Film Festival, was screened a part of BFI London Film Festival and is set to be released in theatres this winter.
Charlie (Fraser) teaches online writing lessons to a group of students, who are completely unaware that behind the turned-off camera (which he claims is broken) hides a morbidly obese man, who can hardly lift his body up from the couch without assistance.
Our first sight of Charlie is him masturbating to gay porn and, as a result, almost having a heart attack. That is when it slowly starts to become obvious – these are the last days of this man’s life. But how and why did he turn into this?
We see Charlie trying to reconnect with his estranged and bitter teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), whom he abandoned years ago when he left his family for a former student and the love of his life who tragically died.
The creators of the film talk a lot about the struggles that people with obesity go through and the great deal of respect they deserve for that, but do their words correspond with what is presented on the screen?
The Whale is a story about a man who, out of grief, guilt, and despair, sacrifices himself to atone for his sins. However, as much as you pity Charlie and want to root for him, it feels almost impossible to perceive him as a human being. He is either presented as a disgusting monster who drowns himself in an endless amount of food, or an almost saint-like figure, who puts everybody’s interests before his own.
Completely dehumanised, Charlie floats around his apartment with the help of a stroller or a wheelchair, in a way that deliberately echoes the film’s title.
Samuel D. Hunter, who wrote the original stage play from which the film is adapted, also worked on the screenplay, and the theatrical roots are more than evident in the movie. Aronofsky consciously decides not to ‘open up’ the play, instead, he chooses a narrow frame that contributes to the overall claustrophobic feeling and immerses us into the world of Charlie’s apartment in his last days.
Working on a chamber story like this, it was crucial for Aronofsky to find the perfect actors for the roles, which he evidently took very seriously since the casting took almost over a decade. And it appears to be for good reason, since all of the actors play their parts exceptionally well.
Brendan Fraser’s performance, in particular, is hard to overestimate. As much as the character might raise some questions, Fraser empathetically embodies Charlie in a way that cannot possibly leave one indifferent. Regardless of all the controversy around the choice of a non-obese actor and the use of prosthetics, it is difficult to picture someone else as Charlie.
One of Aronofsky’s signatures is an ending that gives you a strong emotional (at points almost physical) release that puts you in sort of a trance, where you find yourself staring at the glaring credits trying to comprehend what has just happened. A very strong tool for a filmmaker because it can come close to making you forgive and forget any flaws you may have noticed before. The Whale is no exception to this rule.
Featured Image: Courtesy of IMDB and A24
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