I've been stewing over what to write about 'The Whale' for quite some time now. I loved this movie. It made me laugh, I cried, Brendan Fraser's performance is magnificent, the writing excellent – but everyone's already said all that?
Seeing this movie at Viennale was special in its own right. After queuing for two hours to get into the screening, whispers of anticipation and a little competition as we all hustled to get a seat, I was anxious that so much effort had gone into watching a film that might not be worth it or fall short of all the hype. The resounding applause that filled the cinema at the end credits and the tears rolling down my cheeks would suggest it was anything but.
'The Whale' is Darren Aronofsky's ('Mother!', 'Black Swan', 'Requiem for a Dream') latest film. It's been hailed online for the standing ovations recieved at Venice, Brendan Fraser's comeback and Sadie Sink's star performance. Charlie (Brendan Fraser, 'The Mummy') is a reclusive English teacher who must navigate the limitations of his severe obesity in the face of ordinary life events, until a health scare prompts him to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink, Netflix's 'Stranger Things'). Hong Chau ('The Menu', 'Downsizing') plays Charlie's best friend and carer – presenting the dilemma of wanting Charlie to get better while also giving him what he "needs". Her performance equals that of Sadie's and Brendan's.
I wasn't surprised after watching this film to discover it was adapted from Samuel D. Hunter's own play. The film is set solely in main character Charlie's apartment, thereby creating a level of intimacy that feels as though you're watching a live performance. The writing itself is just... wow. To not only utilise just one location for your entire story, but also to convey the complexity of human relationships and conflict between so few people with such efficacy is why I think the film has achieved the level of notoriety it already has.
It's honest in its depiction of people. As you're watching, you can't help but empathise with all characters in their circumstances, understanding everyone's perspective through their lived experience. The dialogue is eloquent, integrating all manner of topics so seamlessly. Aronofsky is the master of balance; important conversations interwoven, Charlie's own conflict with his weight handled with attentiveness, and family dysfunction directed with realism and a mix of drama and humour. All things that most would shy away from or handle so lightly – Aronofsky approaches head-on with the full understanding of his art form.
So having thought about what makes this movie the gem that it is, I have had two revelations about it.
The first was while watching Brendan Fraser and Adam Sandler interview each other on Variety. Brendan Fraser to us has always held a position of nostalgia – whether it be his roles in 'The Mummy', 'George of the Jungle', 'Ink Heart' or 'Adventure at the Centre of the Earth', we all have a blockbuster adventure memory associated with him. A lot of media has pegged 'The Whale' as Fraser's comeback. He said himself in the interview that "I was never that far away, I've always kept busy doing something," but he knew he would have to make "a statement of sorts" and reinvent himself. And he did. I think that's why this film probably pulls at the heartstrings a little more. Brendan Fraser isn't taking us on a fantastical adventure swiping swords and dodging bullets - he's there in a living room, hurting physically and mentally. This whole movie, you want to reach in and give Charlie a hug. Brendan Fraser reinstated himself to us as something new, in a moving human tale.
This whole movie, you want to reach in and give Charlie a hug. Brendan Fraser reinstated himself to us as something new, in a moving human tale.
Pair that with his character's outlook in the film. I think another powerful branch of this movie is its ability to portray some of the thoughts and feelings we all have; that constant search for finding a silver lining in dire circumstances. One of the quotes reappearing in the previews from the film is, "do you ever get the feeling that people are incapable of caring?"
Considering the conversations that exist in Charlie's apartment and as audiences, when we think about the constant barrage of negative news we hear throughout the day, you empathise with Charlie's character getting so worn down and having to pick himself up again. I think that's why audiences were so teary, and why this film is having the impact that it is.
"People are amazing." Another quote from the film and its previews.
I love this film because it reminds you of just that. It's a discussion on disillusionment – the idea that people do have to battle through tough life situations, that our human experience is individual and hurting, but despite all of this, we have a responsibility to recognise the good and the amazing in people. All people. And that looks different for everyone, so 'The Whale' tells us to look harder. For some people, for Charlie - all it takes to see the amazing is a well-written English essay.