The nailed-on awards-bothering performance to beat has arrived in the shape of Brendan Fraser’s living-with-obesity shut-in, who’s seeking forgiveness from his daughter, and himself, in Darren Aronofsky’s button-pushing adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s hit play, The Whale. Buried in a 600lb body-adjustment suit with wispy hair, clammy skin, and the sadness of a condemned animal in his eyes, Fraser’s Charlie is a man whose addictive emotional eating has brought him to the edge of death in his cramped Idaho apartment.
Imprisoned by his own shame and lack of mobility, he spends his days teaching online students literature (with the camera switched off), wanking miserably over gay porn and over-apologizing to everyone, from the missionary (Ty Simpkins) who arrives on his doorstep in the middle of a collapse to his chippy/caring nurse friend Liz (Hong Chau), estranged teen daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) and his ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton).
Charlie’s blood pressure has climbed to a critical 238/134 and, eschewing medical intervention apart from the comfort Liz offers, he knows that his days are numbered. “He won’t be here next week,” plain-speaking Liz tells visitors as Charlie’s vital organs start to fail. The body he’s created from pain, compulsion, and as a literal buffer to society seems to be finally ushering him out of the cruel world he inhabits. But even as his physical existence fades, Charlie’s soul still burns bright. An unshakeable optimist, he puts his trust in the belief that “people are amazing” and “incapable of not caring”.
Not caring is certainly a challenge for viewers when watching Fraser bring such emotional clout and heat-seeking hope to Charlie, a man who asks for truth from his students, sees the best in his spiky daughter and chooses compassion in a misanthropic world.
Fraser’s casting may prompt questions about whether an actor who understood Charlie’s struggle from a daily point of view might have offered a more truthful rendering of the character. But with his expressive eyes and ponderous cadence – and his own personal journey – this feels like a role he’s been waiting for his whole career.
Equally, food addiction is simplified, while Charlie’s innate goodness could be viewed as cinematic salve to make obesity more palatable to a society that still doesn’t recognize eating disorders as a disease as insidious as drug dependency or alcoholism. Additionally, the staginess of the original material is still evident, while the manipulative score acts as an unsophisticated emotional primer.
But, quibbles and conversation starters aside, The Whale is Aronofsky's kindest work to date, a film that asks its audience to practice acceptance, understanding, empathy, and forgiveness. It unpicks wounds relating to parental abandonment, self-destruction, loneliness, marriage breakdown, and sexual orientation as well as the triggers and tribulations of self-medicating with food. In that, it’s a film that takes the specific and makes it universal. And in the wake of recent global events, it’s likely to prompt catharsis and blubbing for audiences.
It’s not just Fraser who will be buoyed by this project either. Stranger Things’ Sink is luminous and ambiguous as a hurt brat (is she acting out of spite or acting up?) while Hong Chau is emotionally devastating as a woman inescapably complicit in her friend’s decline while also trying to help; she’s both feeder and physician. She also has most of the best zingers in a screenplay (written by Hunter himself) that walks a fine line between amusing and emotive. It’s also one that chooses to turn towards the light (in every way), rather than descend into the darkness.
The Whale reaches US theaters on December 9, but does not yet have a UK release date. For more, check out the most exciting upcoming movies heading your way soon.