The Plot: Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is morbidly obese, barely able to move off his sofa without some form of support. He doesn’t leave his apartment and the only visitor appears to be his wisecracking carer Liz (Hong Chau), who dishes hard truths to him while caring deeply for her charge. Charlie teaches an online creative writing class, but ashamed about his appearance he hides it from his students. Something happened several years ago which changed his life, but it came a high cost. It meant abandoning his former partner Mary (Samantha Morton) and their young daughter together. Ellie (Sadie Sink) has now resurfaced as a perpetually angry teenager, trying to understand her estranged father’s destructive actions. There is just one chance here for redemption for Charlie, whatever it may be…
The Verdict: Hollywood loves a comeback kid and this year alone, there are several of them in the running for an Oscar. Most worthy of all is Brendan Fraser, the eminently likeable and hard-working actor who could be adventurous, goofy or dashing (sometimes all three simultaneously) whenever Tinselstown came calling. But then he lost that passion for acting and disappeared from view for a while… until now, that is. He’s having a moment courtesy of his Oscar-nominated performance in Darren Aronofsky’s latest film The Whale. On the face of his astonishing performance here, he deserves all the plaudits coming. That’s not chest-beating rhetoric, as is sometimes the case with these Awards Season films. There can be remarkable performances in otherwise very average films that copper fasten the fact that it’s just an actor’s film (I, Tonya springs to mind). However, The Whale works on both levels as an actor and a director’s film with an emotional wallop to boot.
Given that it’s almost entirely set in the one location of a shuttered apartment, it’s perhaps no surprise then to learn that it’s based on the play by Samuel D. Hunter who also adapts it for the screen. It does have a theatrical quality to it, with lead character Charlie mostly confined to his sofa and unable to go outside. He doesn’t really want to know about the world outside, but it comes crashing back into his life when his former partner and daughter come to see him for the first time in eight years. That’s where the dramatics come in, as Charlie faces up to his past mistakes while dealing with his mortality as his health deteriorates due to his food obsession. Aronofsky slyly works around the theatricality of it all by moving his camera in close to his actors and keeping the camera roving around the apartment so it doesn’t become staid and stuffy.
While there are memorable smaller roles for Samantha Morton as Charlie’s former partner and Ty Simpkins as an enthusiastic Bible basher trying to redeem Charlie’s soul, the core relationship here is between Charlie and Ellie. A rolling cannon ball of negative energy masking a softer side within, Ellie is a force of nature who brings the true Charlie to the surface and gives him the one shot he needs to redeem himself in her eyes. Sadie Sink is impressive here with the kind of unsympathetic role that could very easily have gone sideways. Hong Chau lends strong support too, in another eye-catching role following her finely-tuned waitress in The Menu. Fraser, acting through layers of prosthetics, gets to the core of this unfortunate character who made bad decisions but also knows that it’s never too late to say sorry. His performance here is quite something, revealing previously untapped talent for serious dramatic range – the kind that’s worthy of an Oscar. It’s a transformation in many ways for Fraser, but it goes beyond look-at-me-Oscar showboating. Real acting is invisible to an audience and that’s evident here.
In typical Aronofsky fashion, he mixes in various themes about life and death, family and loneliness, rejection and acceptance, love and hate. The complexity of human relationships laid bare. The filmmaking here is firmly grounded in reality but yet profound enough to believably go to other places. David Lowery might be the only other living director who could attempt something like this and yet make it so relatable on a gut level, but Aronofsky is the one to see it through for a deeply moving and oddly affecting whale of a time. The Whale doesn’t bellyflop or splash about. It glides through the water gracefully and with the dramatic heft that it needs to resonate long after the credits roll.
Rating: 4 / 5
Review by Gareth O’Connor
In short: Whale of a time
Directed by Darren Aronofsky.
Starring Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton.