Written by Ivan Chin
Brendan Fraser’s return to the big screen sees him playing an obese teacher, Charlie, who strives to make amends with his estranged daughter. The Whale is laden with a myriad of emotions in broken characters seeking fulfilment. Departing from his usual allegorical narratives with bleak views of humanity, Darren Aronofsky focuses instead on drawing out the intensity in each performance.
The Whale, which is adapted from Samuel D. Hunter’s play of the same name, follows the convention of the stage. The passage of time is dictated by the events that happen within the apartment where Charlie lives and works from. Much, if not nearly all of the film is confined to it. Scenes begin with the entrance of a character and end with their departure. Instead of the typical ‘exit stage left’ cue, there is a single door through which they pass. It’s also this innocuous-looking door that proves to be a hurdle for Charlie, a threshold that he finds himself unable to pass.
Aronofsky’s fascination with stories driven by broken characters might be why he chose to adapt this in the first place. Every film of course has its staple of flawed characters, and on the surface, The Whale seems no different in this regard. Each character in this film is unique with all their vices and imperfections. Charlie himself refuses to get professional help for his deteriorating condition, while the young missionary Thomas proselytizes to Charlie, yet is wrestling with his inner demons. Even Liz, his friend and helper played by Hong Chau, gets mired in a moral dilemma after the arrival of Thomas and Charlie’s daughter complicates things.
Fraser might take front and centre, but Aronofsky gives attention and detail to the other characters, allowing ample screentime to draw out their nuances and backstory which enrich the narrative. There’s a sort of ballad in which the other arcs revolve around Charlie’s, with each actor playing off Fraser. Aronofsky draws out the beauty in each character in their vulnerability, as they bare their fears and insecurities. Though they are intrinsically unlikeable characters, Aronofsky gives reason to root for and sympathise with them. Each interaction is deliberate and dives deeper into their psyche, bridging the emotional gap with moments of epiphany.
Plenty of others have praised Fraser’s comeback performance in The Whale as his magnum opus, and deservedly so. Personally though, the force majeure is found in Charlie’s daughter Ellie, played by Sadie Sink. Her appearance proves to be the greatest disruption to Charlie’s life, a jarring presence who, unlike Liz or Thomas, is begrudged by resentment at her father for leaving her. Her blatant hatred of Charlie is ironically what spurs him out of his complacency, going as far as to revitalise his purpose in life. It is also her, with her twisted sense of wit, who manages to pierce through the iron-clad defence that Charlie has put around himself. Sadie morphs into the little terror whose brilliance is tremendously understated.
The Whale remains true to Aronofsky’s perceptive examination of the extremes of human nature. It’s refreshing to see him take a more grounded approach, guided more by the performances than heavier-handed themes. The humanistic qualities imbued in this film resonate deeply and promise to either make or break you.
This review is published as an extension of *SCAPE’s Film Critics Lab, organised by The Filmic Eye with support from the Singapore Film Society.
About the Author: Ivan Chin has a penchant for Hong Kong cinema and science-fiction films, but enjoys anything from blockbusters to the avant-garde. His favourite directors include Johnnie To, Denis Villeneuve and Stanley Kubrick. He also fervently hopes to see local films blossom. In his free time, he can usually be found wandering around cinemas.
About the Movie:
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins
Duration: 1h 57min
Synopsis: A reclusive English teacher attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter.
The Whale is screening in all Singapore cinemas with a M18 Rating.