Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton, Sathya Sridharan
Runtime: 1 hr 57 mins
Rating: M18 (Some Homosexual Content)
Released By: mm2 Entertainment
Opening Day: 29 December 2022
Synopsis: From Darren Aronofsky comes The Whale, the story of a reclusive English teacher living with severe obesity who attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter for one last chance at redemption.
Warning: this is a painful movie to sit through.
There were many occasions during the 117 minute film that we found ourselves feeling extremely uncomfortable, simply because we were witnessing the heartbreaking situations the protagonist was going through. These were scenarios that we may have heard about or imagined in our heads. Seeing the events unfold before our very eyes on the big screen creates an undeniable impact and a sense of uneasiness.
You may have read about actor Brendan Fraser’s comeback (Google for “Brennaissance”). During the late 1990s and the early 2000s, Fraser was a Hollywoodheartthrob with starring roles in George of the Jungle (1997) and The Mummy Trilogy (1999 – 2008). Then he started fading away from the limelight due to various health problems, personal losses and a high profile sexual assault allegation against the former Hollywood Foreign Press Association president Philip Berk.
Then this independent film by Darren Aronofsky came along, and Fraser again made headlines for playing a severely obese man. Search online for footage of him tearing up during the standing ovation at this year’s Venice Film Festival (where the movie had its world premiere), and you may be moved to tears too.
Age and health have evidently taken a toll on Fraser, and he is no longer looks like the swashbuckling hero we used to know. In this film based on Samuel D Hunter’s play of the same name, Fraser puts on a fat suit to play Charlie, a morbidly obese man who chooses isolate himself from the world. He delivers an incredibly moving performance that you need to see to believe, displaying a mix of sadness and wittiness in the character. When we first meet Charlie, his health is deteriorating badly (he refuses to go to the hospital despite a dangerously high blood pressure). As what seems like a countdown to his eventual demise, we see several characters interacting with him in his apartment.
There is Charlie’s best and probably only friend (Hong Chau) who has been taking care of him, a Christian missionary (Ty Simpkins) who may be doing more than saving Charlie’s tormented soul, an extremely unpleasant teenager (Sadie Sink channeling the same vibes as her Stranger Things character) who also happens to be Charlie’s estranged daughter, and Charlie’s ex wife (Samantha Morton) who has been single handedly raising their rebellious child.
It is easy to see how this story would have played out on stage with its single location premise. Aronofsky manages to give the screenplay written by Hunter a cinematic feel, thanks to his long time collaborator Matthew Libatique’s cinematography. Charlie’s apartment is gloomily lit, and the camera moves within the compounds in a way that makes you feel isolated. Composer Rob Simonsen’s melancholic score creates a dismal mood, which reflects Charlie’s helplessness. Behind his supposed positive personality (he genuinely believes that there is goodness in his mean daughter) and his neverending apologies, has he actually given up?
And there is Charlie’s binge eating problem. After his boyfriend died (he left his family to live a life with his partner), he got out of control with his diet. There are scenes of him chomping on fried chicken, chocolate bars and sandwiches, and one particular sequence takes place after an exceptionally distressing episode - you want to look away but yet you know this is a real life condition that is happening to people. Just how much can the heart take before it shatters, both literally and figuratively?
If you are familiar with Aronofsky’s works, this is not unexpected. The characters in his films are often desperate individuals who struggle with getting a grasp in the unforgiving world we live in. His films are not family friendly joy rides – just look at 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, 2010’s Black Swan and 2017’s Mother!. While some argue that his works are too clever for his own good (and in this case, there are already heated discussions about weight stigma and the portrayal of obese people), we are of the opinion that the filmmaker merely showed us the harsher side of life via a cinematic approach.
And with his latest film, we are reminded again that life is no bed of roses, and we just have to unearth the beauty amidst the self centredness and viciousness we live with every single day.
(Brendan Fraser delivers an extremely honest and moving performance in this film that may be uncomfortble for some to sit through. But like Darren Aronofsky's previous works, it is one that reminds you that life is harsh but there may yet be hope amidst the desperation.)
Review by John Li