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The Whale - Film Review

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by Nicholas Gordon (subscribe)
Freelance writer based in Sydney.
Published January 31st 2023
Brendan Fraser as you've never seen him before
Brendan Fraser's Oscar-nominated performance in The Whale is a remarkable turn for the actor. Fraser, clad in a prosthetic body suit, plays a morbidly obese English teacher named Charlie. Charlie's extraordinary heft means that he is confined to his apartment, and that everyday tasks are cloaked in painful difficulty. Fraser's performance is amazing and award-worthy, but it's the highlight of a film that is otherwise let down by its contrivances and melodramatic, often silly plot.

We learn early on that Charlie was always a big guy, but the death of his partner, a former student named Alan, led to grief which manifested itself in binge eating. Now Charlie is so big that he needs a walker to get around his apartment and must use various contraptions to complete everyday tasks. A torturous scene in which he drops a key on the floor and tries to retrieve it with a grabber reminds you of those claw machine games in arcades where it's obvious the hook is not going to be able to pick up the desired object.

Charlie may be grief stricken and frighteningly obese but he's not aimless. He teaches English online, his only eccentricity being that he never turns his camera on (he tells the students his webcam is broken). Actual human contact comes solely from home-care nurse Liz (Hong Chau), who alternates between harsh and caring with Charlie.

But as The Whale begins, Charlie's isolated existence changes and soon many are entering his world. The first is a young missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins). He comes to Charlie's house to proselytize but is instead forced to help Charlie who is wheezing and struggling for breath. Liz arrives soon after, diagnoses life-threatening blood pressure levels and urges a hospital visit which Charlie refuses.

Next in Charlie's apartment is Ellie (Sadie Sink), his estranged daughter. Ellie is in high school, lives with her mother (Charlie's ex-wife) and is foul-mouthed and spectacularly angry. Charlie has summoned Ellie fearing his end is near. Ellie's anger towards Charlie stems from the fact that Charlie abandoned wife and daughter eight years ago to pursue his relationship with Alan. Both Ellie and her mother have never really gotten over it and both are now no longer living up to their potential: mum's a drunk and Ellie has school troubles which most recently includes being suspended.

Charlie is now receiving visitors at all hours (Ellie's mother even shows up for a deep and meaningful). Thomas, the young gospel spreader, has by now become a recurring presence, hoping to convert Charlie. Slowly backstories unfurl: Liz is more than just a nurse and Thomas isn't telling the truth about his background.

The Whale was written by Samuel D. Hunter, based on his own play, and directed by Darren Aronofsky. The film's source material is readily apparent: we never leave Charlie's apartment and much of the dialogue is unmistakably theatrical. The script is stuffed with themes, including religion, grief, separation, obesity and teenage angst. But it ultimately doesn't shed much light on these themes, instead choosing to opt for soap opera-like melodrama. And even then the film doesn't really provoke much emotion; in the end, it's not even that sad.

Brendan Fraser's performance is still remarkable, despite what he's got to work with. His Charlie exists in a state of permanent grief. But at times he is strangely optimistic, finding good in the world and expressing admiration for his students and his daughter. And he still has purpose: saving money from his teaching jobs to give to Ellie. He wants to provide, but doesn't want to be around, yet can still see beauty in the world. This worldview remains one of the film's more interesting aspects. Most else proves forgettable.

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*Nicholas Gordon was invited as a guest
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Why? For Charlie
When: In cinemas February 2
Where: Cinemas nationally
Cost: Varies
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