LFF 2022: The Whale – Review

Release Date – 3rd February 2023, Cert – 15, Run-time – 1 hour 57 minutes, Director – Darren Aronofsky

When it seems his condition may be leading him to his final days a reclusive, morbidly obese English teacher (Brendan Fraser) tries to reconnect with his teenage daughter (Sadie Sink).

It’s been a fair while since I watched director Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale and yet there is plenty of it that has stayed glued to me since this viewing, and will likely echo for some time. Adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his play of the same name details of the film, even now, appear to have been kept almost as secretive as the central figure. And perhaps this is the best way to go into the film, knowing almost nothing about it. Once inside there’s plenty to experience, best experienced through the surprise factor after all the secrecy.

It’s much like the apartment which Brendan Fraser’s Charlie lives in, hidden away from the outside and yet flooded with hints of memories amongst the wrappers, boxes and general litter. He has little contact with the outside world, apart from the pizza guy (Sathya Sridharan) who leaves the delivery outside the door and walks off and his best friend Liz (Hong Chau) – who, as a nurse, insists that he see a doctor about his condition. Charlie is ashamed of the way he looks, weight over 600-pounds and barely being able to move without something to slowly hold on to. Early on Liz tells him that if he doesn’t see anyone he might not make it to the end of the week, cue his attempts not to go to a hospital, but to reconnect with his resentful teenage daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink).

“I’m worried she’s forgotten what an amazing person she is” Charlie says to Liz about his daughter. You genuinely believe this line and feel the worry and emotional pain in his voice. In fact, when in ‘dad mode’ Fraser’s excellent performance is at its best. He uses his skills as an English teacher – he lectures via video calls, claiming his webcam is broken, to college students – to write an essay Ellie’s supposed to do for school, the only thing which appears to be able to bring her back to his cluttered apartment. There’s no denying her character’s anger, a handful of scenes between her and other members of the limited cast have an uncomfortable air around them. She puts on a veil of kindness and you worry about where it will go and how it will impact events and relationships, alongside what it may reveal about the past and a former family unit (with Samantha Morton as Charlie’s ex-wife Mary).

However, perhaps nothing quite matches the discomfort of scenes focusing on Charlie’s depressed overeating. There’s an intensity to such moments capturing his anger, upset and attempted relief through how much, and what, he is consuming. Such instances feel like a horror film just in the way they are shot and performed. All helping to make a detailed central figure who we connect with and sit in interest as things pan out around him. The narrative is one of small developments and conversations yet it hooks you due to the dramatic stakes about relationships, both those with other characters and personal ones with themselves, and the courses they travel along in the few days the film covers.

Everything builds up to a stunning finale. One which solidifies the fact that the film will linger in the mind long after the credits have rolled and you’re still in your seat. You’re in breathless awe as the sequences play out, building up a rapidly increasing dramatic and emotional intensity. There are many personal times in my life when I wish I could have had this film (including just the age of 16) and perhaps what personal elements you bring to it (or remember part way through) will help to intensify the response to the overall film. Led by Fraser’s sensationally moving performance, which is worthy of many plaudits, there’s a lot to experience throughout and think about after The Whale. A film to sit and ponder long after it’s over, there’s a lot to like, and even love, once inside the walls of the central apartment in which most of the events take place. A truly stunning surprise once in from the guise of the outside glimpses.

Fraser is stunning with a truly devastating performance which captures plenty of emotional and personal notes with various characters, especially Sink. Full of surprises and genre hints The Whale brings you in for a drama of intense conversations and relationships, leaving you in awe by the stunning finale.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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