The Whale

It is one of the most talked about movies of the year. It has given a former Hollywood star his best role in years. It’s from a director who often produces controversial and diversive films. It has been lauded with awards and award nominations. Yet does it manage to match the hype? Is it the film to reincarnate the star’s career? will it be a big winner come Oscar night? From viewing it, I can say that the hype is not warranted, and what we have is a disappointment, although the performances are better than the material.

Charlie is a man hiding from the world. Morbidly obese, he teaches University students online but without them seeing him. He refuses to go out, struggling to get around his own home and knows that his days are numbered. Relying on Liz, his home nurse and best friend, he decides to reconnect with his daughter, Ellie, the child he abandoned when she was 8, after falling for a male student. Yet she is a tough, angry young girl who finds him disgusting, is dropping out of school and is rebelling against everything in the world. Can this gentle and sad man bond with the one person he doesn’t want hating him?

Director Darren Aronofsky is a filmmaker who doesn’t shy away from complex topics. Movies like Requiem For A Dream, Black Swan and mother! have caused audiences to be repulsed, shocked and often split in opinions. This time, tackling obesity should have been a walk in the park for this director. However, using the source material of a play by Samuel D. Hunter, and keeping it in the confines of one location, as if we are watching a filmed stage production, this lacks any real punch, and what should have been an emotional rollercoaster ends up being lacking any real connections with the characters and the situation.

Charlie, the main protagonist, is a troubled man who has ended up in his situation due to losing a loved one. Letting himself go to the point that his blood pressure is dangerously high and his inability to manoeuvre around his apartment without a walker, this is a man who is ashamed of how he looks and yet cannot seem to do anything about it. He knows he is eating himself to death and yet cannot stop. His only companion is Liz, a tough-talking nurse who has become the one he relies on, even though she constantly tells him to go to the hospital, something that could save him. Not wanting the burden of debt, yet knowing he is dying, he only wants to reconnect with the young girl he abandoned. This forms the centre of the story.

Yet there seem to be so many missed opportunities. Here is a man with complex psychological issues, he never gets deep into this man’s reasonings for eating. It gets mentioned, but the story has far more interesting aspects to explore. Played as a stage production, he lives in a home with an open door policy, so characters come in and out when they please. This includes Thomas, a young man who helps Charlie when he is in distress, ending up coming and going as he wants, trying to convert Charlie to religion. Each of the characters has their own backstory, which is told in long monologues, allowing each actor a chance, but instead of emotionally connecting with them, distances them from us.

You also find yourself questioning why no one has done anything to help Charlie. Liz, who constantly complains about his lack of interest in going to a hospital, could have easily picked up the phone herself. Yet she comes in, takes his blood pressure and then feeds him subs. His daughter, who has a hatred of everything in the world, has Charlie saying there is goodness inside her, yet it is never really shown. When she posts derogatory comments about one of the characters on social media, leading to a revelation, Charlie sees this as her helping, which is head-scratching in the least.

With so much going on and so little emotional connection, it’s surprising that the performances are really the only good thing about this film. Samantha Morton makes the most of her short screen time as Charlie’s former wife and shows why she is one of the best in the business. Come in, make an impact, and then go. As Ellie, the daughter, Sadie Sink has enough venom and attack to prove she could be one to watch in the future, while Hong Chu, as Liz, comes close to stealing the film from everyone, particularly during a speech about her brother.

Yet these performances may be overlooked due to the central performance by Brandon Fraser. Having been away from the limelight for years, after being a big box office draw with The Mummy series, he is given a dream role regarding the awards. Hidden inside a fat suit, which has become controversial in itself, this is a surprisingly controlled performance showing a terrific actor under the latex. Often softly spoken, this has plenty of subtleness, and you can understand why he has been getting standing ovations from festivals worldwide. Yet you wonder if it’s because of his comeback more than the performance itself. It’s an excellent performance in a film that fails to compliment his work.

The Whale offers so much and delivers so little. Far too stagey, far too many questions unanswered; it’s is full of great actors doing their very best but let down by a script that doesn’t work and a director who went the easy route. If it is triumphant at the Oscars, it won’t be for the story or the direction but for those within who deserve better. I left lacking any emotional connection and longing for something much better and more profound.

2 out of 5

Director: Darren Aronofsky

Starring: Brandon Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chu, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton, Sathya Sridharan

Written by: (based on the stage play) Samuel D. Hunter.

Running Time: 117 mins

Cert: 15

Release date: 3rd February 2023


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