The Whale is a psychological drama and character portrait about a reclusive English teacher whose poor health prompts him to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter. Morbidly obese, Charlie confines himself to his apartment where he conducts online creative writing classes with a degree of anonymity. Under the care of a nurse and friend, Liz, he continues to ignore her pleas for him to check into a hospital, trying to make amends for abandoning his marriage and rebellious daughter, Ellie.
The Whale is directed by Darren Aronofsky and based on the stage play by William D. Hunter, who adapted this for screen. Centred on a recluse and set in his home where visitors come and go, the focus is on characters, trying to create a sense of space to counter its claustrophobic backdrop. While constrained by its stage origins, it never stagnates under Aronofsky’s watch, using its ensemble to keep a healthy dose of conflict and momentum to the storytelling. A visionary director, The Whale won’t count among Aronofsky’s personal best but does demonstrate his ability to handle more intimate character studies after the more expansive Black Swan and The Wrestler.
Grappling with the concept of being saved, pushing down the sadness and living in a vacuum of denial, The Whale is a fascinating character portrait, housing many swirling themes bound to draw a range of emotions. It’s a challenging viewing experience, not offering any easy outs, capturing glimpses of light through humour and optimism in the face of human frailty.
Tapping into universal truths, there’s a sense of futility and melancholy beneath the surface as Charlie resigns himself to his fate, trying to placate Liz and reconnect with Ellie. A little shaggy as a screenplay, or possibly too faithful as an adaptation, this character-driven psychological drama is an actor’s showcase.
“People are incapable of not caring.”
Nominated for 3 Oscars, this film has been singled out for its make up, hairstyling and performances, specifically Brendan Fraser and Hong Chau. Fraser transcends the prosthetics to deliver a deeply human, honest and tender turn, which coupled with his comeback story should earn him an Oscar. Better known for his comical heroics in films like The Mummy and Blast from the Past, Fraser hasn’t shied away from drama, delivering solid performances in Crash, Gods and Monsters and The Quiet American. Using his eyes, voice and leaning on brilliant make up and hairstyling, he commands a full-fledged performance of great empathy, understanding and vulnerability.
Supported by Hong Chau as a fiercely protective nurse and friend, Liz, as well as Sadie Sink as his precocious estranged daughter, Ellie, the trio outshine their co-stars. Ty Simpkins chimes in with a solid performance as the helpful wandering presence Thomas while Samantha Morton’s intense, off-kilter yet theatrical performance as Mary is at odds.
Ultimately, The Whale is a niche and claustrophobic psychological drama where you welcome Charlie’s open door policy in the hopes of getting some fresh air into his stuffy apartment and by extension the cinema. Elevated by several excellent performances, powerful human themes compel this honest and fiercely tender and heartfelt character portrait.
The bottom line: Melancholic