The Whale preview screening provided by Madman Entertainment
“The Whale is worth seeing for Brendan Fraser’s performance alone”
By Arnel Duracak
It’s been a while since Brendan Fraser graced the big screen with those big blue eyes and kind face of his. For me, the last Fraser-led film I remember seeing was The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) which I quite liked, contrary to popular opinion. His latest film, The Whale (2022) —hailed a comeback of sorts— sees him swap the boisterous and bubbly for the grim and isolated. It’s a step away from the sort of feel-good Fraser flicks we’re used to seeing, but it represents a welcome change for the actor.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky and adapted from Samuel D. Hunter’s play of the same name, The Whale follows Charlie (Fraser), a character who is on the brink of death due to overeating, as he faces the final days of his life alone and within the confines of his small apartment. He knows his days are numbered because his close friend and nurse, Liz (Hog Chau), has checked his blood pressure (a whopping 238/134) and discerned that he’ll be gone by the weekend if he doesn’t get to the hospital. Charlie, a recluse, decides against her advice and instead wants to make amends with those closest to him that he has wronged — namely his daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink).
Aronofsky’s film opens up to almost become this story about a man trying to redeem himself with the time he has left. Of course, Aronofsky is someone who is no stranger to exploring simple human tendencies and problems in a melancholic and at times, horrific way. He did the same thing with Mickey Rourke’s aging, retired wrestler in The Wrestler (2009) and to a lesser extent in Requiem for a Dream (2000), and he’s done so again now. In fact, The Whale almost feels like a spiritual successor to The Wrestler in that it shares a similar tone, is concerned with a character who is at their lowest point and is trying to make amends, and gets a standout performance from an actor who has been out of the limelight for some time.
Charlie, unfortunately, has gone past the point of redemption, with the film almost serving to shed light on the dangers of alienation, addiction and troubled family dynamics. It never does that effectively though, choosing instead to follow Charlie around his apartment like a beast in an enclosure: he’s a spectacle to observe, but there’s almost no hope for him in the situation he’s in. Fraser’s performance is what this film hinges on for any attempts at sympathy or pity. He’s a beloved actor who many (including myself) have rooted for to succeed, and his portrayal of a 600 pound man wrestling with this disease does draw that sympathy where you want the character to be okay.
It helps that Fraser is the centerpiece of Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s attention. There’s a warmth that emanates through his eyes in the close-ups that pushes the idea of feeling trapped within yourself — both physically and mentally. Libatique accentuates that through the very low-key, yellowy lighting that at once portrays the apartment as a safe space for Charlie but also a dark pit he can’t escape from. Rob Simonsen’s score adds to that and plays into the film’s title with its almost serene but equally unsettling oceanic leanings; like the ocean, the score fluctuates between the two depending on Charlie’s own emotional state.
The script, by contrast, increasingly weighs proceedings down. There’s too much fluff where otherwise there should be deeper investigation into those aforementioned themes. Characters enter and exit the frame, with the staging itself echoing that of the play and consequently coming across as a ‘Whose Line Is It Anyway?’ type ordeal. The most interesting part of the film is easily Charlie’s interaction with his ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton) who he left some 8 odd years ago for his deceased male partner, Alan. It’s a short scene but it digs that little bit deeper into the elusiveness of Charlie’s character and that side of him that isn’t regurgitated in the self-demeaning dialogues with Ellie, Liz and a young missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins) who pops in every now and then like he’s waiting behind a curtain somewhere.
The Whale is a film that wallows in the grief it depicts. The grief itself stems from Charlie, a behemoth of a man who seemingly cares more for others than himself, believing that there is good in people but continuing down his path of self-destruction. It becomes a cyclical sort of presentation of the same sorts of conversations between characters without ever extrapolating anything deeper out of these dialogues. Fraser is excellent, make no mistake, and The Whale is worth seeing for his performance alone even if the rest of the film plays catch-up and meanders a fair bit (especially with the script). If you walk out feeling better about your eating habits, that’s as good a takeaway as you’ll get.
The Whale opens nationally from the 2nd of February, 2023.