The Whale (Review)

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 117 mins

The Whale is the latest by Darren Aronofsky, his first film since mother! which proved divisive. Aronofsky is one of my favourite directors, his films are always ambitious, often exploring themes of religion and the extremity of humanity. The Whale is an adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 play and follows a morbidly obese English teacher, Charlie (Brendan Fraser). He has eaten himself to this state following the suicide of his partner. Charlie is on the brink of congestive heart failure and refuses to go to hospital. He is cared for by his friend, Liz (Hong Chau) and wants to restore his relationship with his prickly teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). 

The Whale is an emotionally powerful experience with a terrific performance from Brendan Fraser. Aronofsky beautifully explores the relationship between a father and his daughter and there are many touching moments focussing on Charlie’s outlook of life. I walked out of the film grateful and determined to further my relations with others and to always be positive. Yet, the film deftly conveys Charlie’s pain and hopelessness and it becomes inevitable early on that he is on a path of self-destruction. The way in which Aronofsky portrays binge-eating is particularly harrowing – like Requiem For A Dream will make you never want to touch drugs, The Whale is the equivalent for food. It wouldn’t be an Aronofsky film without the exploration of religion and the events on-screen are interwoven with religious parallels and texts, which lend a pathos to Charlie’s situation. 

However, The Whale isn’t Aronofsky’s best work. The film is limited by the fact it’s mostly set in one location and that gives the film a stagey quality. In some ways, the material almost seems as if it is beneath Aronofsky but he manages to really elevate what could have been a pedestrian adaptation. 

Fraser is terrific and fully deserving of the Awards attention. He deftly balances the positivity Charlie has to others, such as encouraging characters to fulfil their ambitions, and his dark, depressed and reclusive internal thoughts and outlook on his life. Charlie is an individual at the end of the line, unable to walk unaided and sweats just shifting his mass on the sofa. 

Hong Chau also puts in a barnstorming supporting performance as Liz, who has an honest and stern personality but equally struggles not to feed Charlie’s bad habits. Sadie Sink is suitably spiky as Charlie’s daughter and her performance is devastating the way in which she treats and speaks to her father. Ty Simpkins is also unrecognisable as a missionary and gives an earnest performance, an impressive transformation from some of his childhood roles such as Insidious, Iron Man 3 or Jurassic World.

Matthew Libatique’s cold and claustrophobic cinematography is excellent and he makes the most out of the single location. The film has a suitably frosty colour palette. The Whale represents the second time Aronofsky hasn’t enlisted Clint Mansell’s services for the score, which is instead provided by Rob Simonsen. Simonsen’s score is magnificent and particularly memorable, skilfully balancing happiness, melancholia and pain.   

Although The Whale overall can’t quite break free of its stage-like quality, it’s still an emotionally thrilling rollercoaster with an unforgettable performance from Brendan Fraser. Aronofsky’s fingerprints are all over the film and there’s plenty of meat on the bone to the story. I came out deeply moved and although it would be very easy to label the film as emotionally manipulative, I found The Whale to have a satisfying weight and outside of Fraser’s performance, it stands up on its own as an engaging piece of cinema. 

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)


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