07th Oct2022

London Film Festival 2022: ‘The Whale’ Review

by Matthew Turner

Stars: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins, Hong Chau, Samantha Morton, Sathya Sridharan | Written by Samuel D. Hunter | Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Brendan Fraser makes a welcome comeback as a morbidly obese man eating himself to death in Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of the play by Samuel D. Hunter. However, though Fraser will likely garner awards attention for his performance, the film itself struggles to convince.

Set in Idaho, in 2016, The Whale centres on Charlie (Fraser), a dangerously overweight English teacher who conducts his classes via Zoom, telling his students that his webcam is broken, so that they can’t see what he looks like. Confined largely to his sofa, his only visitors include Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse and the sister of his former lover, who tells him he’ll be dead within a week if he doesn’t go to the hospital; his estranged, angry 17-year-old daughter Ellie (Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink); and Thomas (Ty Simpkins), an acolyte of the New Life Church, who seems to have set his sights on Charlie.

With the action largely confined to a single room, the story gradually reveals just why Charlie and Ellie became estranged, as well as the reasons why he appears to be eating himself to death, regularly gorging himself on fast food and emphatically refusing to seek the medical help he needs, despite the fact that he suffers a heart attack early on, after furiously masturbating to gay porn.

Wearing a 20-plus stone prosthetic suit (with a digital assist), Fraser is superb as Charlie, delivering a sensitive, heartfelt portrayal that’s fully deserving of the awards attention that is undoubtedly heading his way. It’s astute casting, as Fraser’s relative absence from our screens plays into our sympathies for the character from the off – at any rate, he delivers his best performance since 1998’s Gods and Monsters.

The supporting cast are something of a mixed bag, though that’s often more the fault of the script than the performances. Hong Chau is excellent, nearly stealing the film from Fraser with a spiky, layered and often very funny turn as Liz. Sink is equally good as Ellie – admittedly, she’s only given one note to play (angry), but she plays the hell out of it. Similarly, Simpkins’ part is painfully underwritten, highlighting a key issue with the film, which is that all the characters feel like characters from a play, rather than actual people.

On that same note, the film’s main problem is that it feels too stagey throughout – Aronofsky makes no attempt to open up the play (a flashback or two might have helped) and the result is that it feels pointedly theatrical in every scene, to the point where you find yourself wondering why Aronofsky didn’t just film the play instead.

The other key issue is that all the emotional moments feel trite and contrived, despite the heartfelt sincerity of Fraser’s performance, most notably in an exchange between Charlie and his students that doesn’t land at all. It also doesn’t help that the plot is so thin – it’s hard to believe, for example, that Ellie hasn’t attempted to find her father before now.

In fairness, Aronofsky just about pulls everything together with an engaging ending and the whole thing is undoubtedly worth seeing for Fraser’s performance. It’s just a shame the rest of The Whale lacks the emotional weight to really convince.

*** 3/5

The Whale screens as part of this year’s London Film Festival on October 11th, 12th and 14th.


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