Review of Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale
If you’ve been subject to a conversation of recent film discourse lately, you’ve probably heard of A24’s The Whale. The film, based on the play of the same name by Samuel D. Hunter follows Charlie, an online English teacher who due to an eating disorder resulting from an immeasurable loss, is now suffering from severe obesity.
The film stars Brendan Fraser as Charlie, who stepped away from acting due to various personal issues and a sexual assault he faced at the hands of the then-president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.
Fraser’s return, though probably the most notable talking point of this film, is being met with the controversy surrounding the story’s subject matter and the fact that prosthetics were used as a part of Fraser’s transformation into our 600-pound protagonist. Many have also expressed concern regarding the character of Charlie being a gay man while Fraser himself is not gay.
This is a common practice in the film industry as non-queer individuals are cast in a variety of queer roles, which prompts members of the LGBTQIA+ community to feel that their experience is being commodified into a palatable narrative for heterosexual, cis-gender audiences.
While the complaints regarding the casting are completely reasonable, Fraser’s performance is riveting and easily one of the best performances of the year. As many critics have noted, Fraser’s work in The Whale is probably the best performance of his career. Fraser received a 6-minute standing ovation after the film premiered at the Venice International Film Festival, and deservedly so.
Another not so talked about groundbreaking performance is Hong Chau as her character Liz, a nurse and friend of Charlie’s, must balance compassion, frustration, and even anger, which Chau does seamlessly.
She delivers just the right amount of emotion into every line that offers the viewer even more sympathy for her character than for Charlie as the surrounding circumstances of how she arrived in this story are undoubtedly the most tragic.
Sadie Sink also floors viewers with her presence playing Charlie’s ruthless, sharped-tongued teenage daughter Ellie whose emotional range throughout the film is certainly something to behold and will force most audience members to tears.
The adapted screenplay transitions effortlessly from stage to screen while still retaining the essence of a play. Each scene flows into the next without disruption, leading to a powerful ending that may suffer from an out-of-place and cheesy composition, mainly regarding the final shot, but ultimately sticks the landing.
The film has received mixed reviews from critics, some applauding the film’s take on fatphobia and humanizing a character that many would not take pity on. At the same time, some say the film fetishizes Charlie’s suffering and doesn’t provide much positive insight surrounding a community that has been mocked in the media for far too long.
While Charlie’s weight undoubtedly is one of the driving narratives, the story’s true heart is about a man’s one final chance at redemption has little to do with Charlie’s obesity and more to do with his choices and how they’ve had an effect on his loved ones.
Arguably, Charlie is the most likable character in the film. His unrelenting positivity, desire for honesty, and gentle nature despite the various atrocities that have fallen upon him, including the cruel hostility from his daughter, force audiences to reckon with his humanity rather than his weight.
The film never feels exploitative, unlike other films of this year. It handles its subject matter with care while also offering commentary mostly through the score and lighting, which communicates the utter dread and, at times, the claustrophobic environment we are surrounded in.
Every element in the film feels meticulously crafted, with some details so small yet poignant it will take a rewatch to unpeel and unpack each layer director Darren Aronofsky has left for viewers to digest.
Though The Whale doesn’t seem to resonate with all audiences, it’s certainly a marvel. It excels in its minimalist style, proving that it doesn’t take a billion-dollar budget to make a compelling, unforgettable story.