TIFF Review: “The Whale”

Toronto International Film Festival 2022 Special Presentations North American Premiere

There’s a parallel to be found in Brendan Fraser’s recent career trajectory and the life of the character he plays in “The Whale,” Charlie, albeit a tangential one. After stepping away from Hollywood after being a top box office draw in the 1990s and early 2000s with such hits as “The Mummy” films and “George of the Jungle” in the wake of an assault by an executive and a subsequent weight gain that goes against the industry’s flawed view of beauty, Fraser has been gradually appearing in more projects in recent years, and his lead performance in “The Whale,” already critically acclaimed (Fraser was just awarded the TIFF Tribute Award for Performance), is considered his big comeback. Charlie also went through physical and mental challenges in the wake of a traumatic event, in this case, the death of his lover. A closeted gay man estranged from his ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton) and teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), Charlie took to binge eating, and his weight ballooned to around 600 pounds. An English professor who teaches classes over zoom but perpetually keeps his camera turned off and who is typically only visited by his friend and nurse Liz (Hong Chau)—who begs Charlie to go to a hospital because his lifestyle is slowing killing him—Charlie might have a chance to make things right when Ellie turns back up in his life.

“The Whale” is directed by Darren Aronofsky from a screenplay by Samuel D. Hunter based on his play. And while it is very obviously based on a play—the entire film is set inside Charlie’s apartment, the narrative carried through long conversations—Aronofsky imbues it with some of the surreal, dreamlike imagery that’s a staple of his films, ramping up as the film’s running time—and Charlie’s—ticks down. He frequently keeps the camera revolving around Charlie and his apartment too, emphasizing the fact that his small space where barely any light leaks through the blinds is like a prison to him while avoiding overly stagnant visuals. But if “The Whale”—the title a reference to Moby Dick, a favorite book of Charlie’s, although the comparison it draws to his obesity is hard to avoid—is intended to be an exercise in empathy and an enriching redemption arc, it doesn’t entirely succeed at either. Fraser’s performance isn’t quite like anything he’s tackled before, and worthy of the attention. He manages to transcend the physical transformation he underwent, consisting of makeup and heavy prosthetics, to deliver a tender and heart-breaking performance. His good-naturedness never negates his past and present wrongdoing, and with just a dimming of his eyes and a weariness in his voice he presents Charlie as someone who has resigned himself to his fate. Hong Chau is the perfect foil to him, her lightness and bluntness as she cares for Charlie never entirely masking her legitimate concern for him. But the rest of the cast just play one note of rage throughout the entire film. Sink’s Ellie is so angry throughout that on the rare occasion her mean exterior cracks, it doesn’t feel genuine—even though her character’s anger is justified. The same goes for Morton, who appears in one scene to drag Charlie’s morale down even further. Ty Simpkins costars as Thomas, a young door-to-door missionary who appears on Charlie’s step one day and takes it upon himself to put Charlie on a path to redemption, thereby absolving him of his past sins as well, and his baffled response to the oddball family he sees before him works a little more effectively than Sink’s and Morton’s performances, but they all just feel a little too theatrical.

Brendan Fraser as Charlie in “The Whale”; image courtesy of TIFF

“The Whale” tackles a lot of topics, from guilt to sexuality to grief to religion to literature, while challenging the characters’—and thereby the audience’s—perceptions of others. The former topics are handled rather heavy-handedly through the characters’ dialogue and actions, although the constantly simmering regret felt by everyone for different reasons is deeply felt. As to the former, “The Whale” isn’t exactly fatphobic, but Aronofsky’s camera often draws the viewer’s eye to Charlie as if he is a spectacle to be gawked at. For instance, there are scenes where Charlie will stand from a sitting position, and his entire bulk becomes more apparent as he rises and leans on his walker. The score (by Rob Simonsen) intensifies, and the camera lingers on Charlie, except to cut away to other characters’ alternately repulsed and shocked reactions. Charlie’s weight is an integral part of the story—it’s the reason why his health is in decline, the reason why he retreated into isolation in the first place—but the way Aronofsky draws attention to it borders on grotesque.

Ultimately, “The Whale” is an unsettling watch that doesn’t resolve its characters’ many issues in a satisfactory manner, and the meanness exhibited toward them is just enough to overtake any moments of kindness. It probably says a lot that the scene that sticks out in my mind the most is the one in which the delivery driver of the local pizza joint, Dan (Sathya Sridharan), takes the time to introduce himself to Charlie and check in on him, even though Charlie never opens the door for him. “The Whale” marks a triumphant moment for Brendan Fraser, but that’s where any fleeting similarities with his character diverge; for Charlie, the film just wants to concentrate on the pain.

“The Whale” will be released in theaters on December 9. Runtime: 117 minutes.

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