After the controversy-baiting Noah and thrilling but undeniably pretentious bombast of Mother, there was a nervousness about Darren Aronofsky tackling a subject as tricky as obesity and self-harm through food, people worried that it would be a gross-out spectacle. Though that fear was understandable, it forgot that Aronofsky was also behind The Wrestler, one of the most empathetic, and best acted, films of the 21st Century and it’s in precisely this mode that he brings The Whale to us, a tragic, wrenching, and ultimately deeply kind piece of work that will reduce any screening room to a flood of tears.
Playwright Samuel D Hunter here adapts his own work, telling the story of Charlie (Brendan Fraser) a remote-learning English teacher who has been destroyed by grief following the suicide of his boyfriend, and is now eating himself to death. We follow a week in Charlie’s life after his resulting obesity essentially gets him a terminal diagnosis, staying almost entirely within his Idaho apartment as he receives a series of visitors and attempts to truly reckon with his own mortality. It’s a very stagy premise but Aronofsky keeps it cinematic, always finding new ways to frame Charlie’s home and keeping the performances on the right side of theatrical.
It’s these performances that The Whale will most be remembered for, and they are, to a one, sensational. Fraser’s role is one that has attracted a lot of *narratives*, from the possible fat suit controversy to this film being his big Hollywood comeback to the obvious awards chatter, but his display fully transcends any of these talking points. He’s funny and heartbreaking, never letting the human disappear behind the prosthetics, which are remarkable (and must have been incredibly physically taxing) but I thought not grotesque. It’s a piece of acting that has already earned Fraser standing ovations at festivals across the world, and there could hardly be a role this year more deserving of such lavish praise.
What allows this extraordinary work, though, is the sheer empathy put into the film around Fraser by Aronofsky and Hunter. Charlie’s weight is the by-product of a compulsive need to be punished for his grief and guilt, not something to be gawked at – a binge-eating scene is absolutely devastating, so clearly not about the food but a person’s profound desire to hurt themselves. See, eight years before the start of the film, Charlie walked out on his wife and daughter to be with his now-deceased boyfriend, and it’s in his reunion with these two, especially his furious teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), that The Whale truly reveals its hand as a film about hope, forgiveness, caring, and faith (in others, not necessarily in God).
Ellie is one of the four core visitors, alongside her mother Mary (Samantha Morton, sublime), Charlie’s best friend and home nurse Liz (Hong Chau), and slightly wayward missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins, aka the kid from Iron Man 3). Each visitor brings with them a different tone, which keeps the energy up and allows for great range within the incredible performances. Sink, always the best of the kid actors in Stranger Things, is great as an almost manically angry teenager, slowly re-warming to her dad in fits and starts. The writing is perhaps at its best in their halting but ultimately understanding exchanges, Charlie’s moral complexity coming to the fore and Ellie, even in the slightly theatrical and melodramatic mood of the piece, an utterly believable modern teenager.
Simpkins, meanwhile, is more comic relief but still utterly disappears into the role and his religious discussions with Charlie allow Aronofsky to explore the Biblical territory that has been a staple of his recent filmography in a more grounded, complicated way. As Liz, though, Chau may well actually be the best actor in whole film, which is really, *really* saying something. Charlie’s confidante and lifeline, she lights up the entire screen whenever she appears seemingly without any effort at all, keeping the pain at bay for just a little while longer.
An emotionally-charged chamber piece like this, with its questions of love and redemption, is inevitably building to a grand, squeeze-the-tears-out finale and, for all it could be called predictable, The Whale delivers its crescendo with the kind of sledgehammer force that had me still crying even as I was waiting for my train home from the cinema. In the hands of a team any less skilled than Aronofsky, Hunter, and Fraser and his spectacular co-stars, The Whale could have been undone by its earnest obviousness and noisy, awards-friendly emoting. Yet, they thread the needle perfectly for the most affecting film I’ve seen since Michael Winterbottom’s harrowing documentary Eleven Days in May, one that will rip your heart out before putting it in anew and lifting your soul out of your seat.