Producer/director Darren Aronofsky’s first feature since the poorly-received Mother! (2017) is an intimate, almost claustrophobic character drama toplining an extraordinary, if naturally controversial, performance by Brendan Fraser, as part of a major comeback (even though, of course, he hasn’t really been gone).
Surely a shoo-in for the Oscar, Brendan is the key reason to see Aronofsky’s first shot-on-digital pic, and he offers an understated characterisation of such warmth, kindness and, yes, humour that you tend to forget that it’s him, and he’s wearing a huge prosthetic suit. He also, prior to the longtime-coming production kicking off, contacted the United States’ Obesity Action Coalition (OAC), members of which were initially wary but eventually agreed that the film “realistically portray[s] one person’s story with obesity, something rarely seen in media.”
Drawn from Samuel D. Hunter’s somewhat autobiographical play and screenplay, this is the story of Charlie (Fraser), a reclusive English professor who teaches online writing courses while carefully keeping his computer camera turned off. Charlie weighs some 600 pounds, and his nurse/bestie Liz (Hong Chau) cares for him, despite occasionally lashing out, increasingly concerned about his seriously failing health.
Charlie is introduced having a very private moment, but then a New Church missionary named Thomas (Marvel type Ty Simpkins) barges in the unlocked door and begins trying to proselytise him, even as our protagonist has a cardiac episode. Charlie, rather shockingly, isn’t just atheistic but, as he states, he doesn’t need or want to be saved, and then Liz arrives to chuck Thomas out.
As layer upon psychological layer are peeled from the characters, Charlie is visited by his eight-years-estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink, one of the many breakout names from Netflix’s Stranger Things), and their scenes together are always emotionally confronting. Sadie is full of rage and cynicism, and Charlie suggests he can help her with her High School English essays, although this later becomes him basically writing the essays for her, no matter how angry and insulting she becomes.
Sadie is scarily good here, and Brendan (never a ham) lets her shine, even though her Ellie is the kind of terribly real teen character the movies rarely dare show. It’s obvious that she and Charlie will reconcile, however… or is it?
How exactly Aronofsky was able to so sensitively deal with such difficult material is quite something: this, after all, is the guy who made such obnoxious epics as Noah and the dire The Fountain, and disturbing psychodramas including Requiem For A Dream and Black Swan. And surely this tact was due to the quiet power of Hunter’s screenplay and the cast’s cautiously subtle playing, which meant that there was no room for his pretentious nonsense.
It’s certainly Aronofsky’s most painfully human movie, and chances are this would never have worked without Fraser centre stage (let’s not even think about a failed shot at filming it with the ghastly James Corden, for example). And it’ll continue to be controversial, regardless of this beloved star’s beautiful work.
On with the ‘Brenaissance’!
The Whale (M) is showing at cinemas now.
4 out of 5 STARS