Venice 2022

The Whale review – Brendan Fraser elevates Aronofsky’s tender black comedy

The actor does fine work in this adaptation, bringing humanity and humour to the story of an obese man in the throes of grief

We only hear Charlie at first. He's a black box, labelled “Instructor,” an abyss surrounded by the faces of bored teenagers who look like they'd rather be anywhere else. Charlie teaches online courses from home; his webcam isn't working. Then one of his students mistakenly sends a message to the group chat: why can't he get his camera fixed? Charlie laughs, takes it in his stride, but we hear a hint of uneasiness in his voice. This man, we realise, has made a choice.

With The Whale, the often abrasive and religiose filmmaker Darren Aronofsky has delivered a tender black comedy of the soul, a grappling with the human capacity for empathy shot through with a real literary heart. Based on the divisive play by Samuel D. Hunter (who also penned the screenplay), it’s not at all the cynical exploration some may have feared from the premise, but a surprisingly nuanced portrait of grief and redemption, delivered with real humour and pathos.

At its centre is Brendan Fraser, whose career was made off the back of his boyish charisma and all-American good looks, and whose casting here feels apt given his reputation as something of a Hollywood recluse. Made to look obese through a combination of prosthetics and make-up, he embodies the role of Charlie, confined to his home and refusing expensive medical intervention, without succumbing to the excess and scenery-chewing we tend to associate with such transformations. It’s a performance that allows the rest of the film to be taken seriously, the material enriched off the back of his nuanced, unshowy approach – subtle and considered where it might have been broad and uncomfortable.

The first time we see Charlie properly, he's masturbating, only to be struck with sudden excruciating chest pains; without a visit to the hospital, death in a matter of days seems inevitable. We learn that his excessive eating is caused by the passing of his student lover, Alan, some years earlier, following Charlie's own decision to abandon his family in pursuit of their relationship. Over the course of five days, Charlie will be visited by four characters; his friend and nurse Liz (Hong Chau); his estranged, “evil” daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink); ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton); and Christian missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins). These stories intersect as we come to realise these people are all unhappy in their own ways, and maybe their salvation lies in each another.

Being based on a play, The Whale never entirely escapes the trappings of its source material, though Aronofsky – no stranger to films confined to single locations (see: mother!) – finds ways to make it all cinematic enough, employing frequent cuts and camera movements as a means of reducing the inherent staginess, though never at the cost of making Charlie's apartment any less claustrophobic.

What stands out more than the direction itself, in what is perhaps Aronofsky's conventional film to date, is the film's inherent optimism – Charlie is not defined merely by his size, and his belief that human beings are fundamentally good imbues The Whale, though visually dank and oppressive, with a surprising tenderness to match its protagonist's outlook. The material also continues Aronofsky's run of biblically-minded features; themes explored in his earlier Noah and mother! are probed here on a more relatable, human level. The film is laced with both literary (Moby-Dick plays a key role) and religious references, The Whale suggesting that faith in its purest form is an exercise in empathy – that people are ultimately defined by the way they choose to treat others.

What elevates The Whale beyond its script, with dialogue that can at times feel clunky and contrived, are its performances, excellent across-the-board. Fraser delivers deeply human work, resisting the urge to over-egg emotions, often relying on silences and minute expressions to create a portrait of a grief-stricken individual who, despite falling to pieces, feels  entirely whole. Hong Chau's layered turn as Liz also stands out – another fine turn from an actor who seems to knock it out of the park whenever she turns up; and Sadie Sink is highly convincing as the teenager from hell, prone to fits of hatred and quick to lash out, a volatile mask to cover up years of lost innocence caused by her dad's departure.

The Whale does, at times, feel almost too conventional. Rob Simonsen's relentless, string-heavy score verges on the manipulative, and one can't help but wonder whether laying it on so thick for most of the runtime undermines the purity of the acting work. And while the structure feels a bit too neat as to resemble real life, the film does deliver the foreshadowed emotional wallop of an ending in order to literally ascend to a place that is undeniably moving. I'm not sure this is a great movie, but Fraser is excellent, and its sense of optimism and humanity stays with you. It argues for a place of understanding, to look past the surface and see beyond the superficial.

The Whale was screened as part of the Venice Film Festival 2022. It will be released in UK cinemas on 9 December.

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