The Whale (2022)


I searched for a word when trying to explain my reaction to The Whale (2022), a somewhat-grim filming of a play, about a morbidly obese man in his last week of life.

It took me 12 hours but I came up with ‘respected.’ Respected in the sense that watching The Whale wasn’t an entertaining night at the movies but it is a film that is certainly worth seeing. It held my gaze and attention for its entirety.

The Whale is about honesty.

Not one of the six speaking characters is honest. Even talked of but never seen characters are dishonest.

Charlie (Brendan Fraser) lives in a cheap-looking old apartment in an Idaho, US town. He teaches creative writing to college students via Zoom and rues the circumstances where he encourages them to rewrite and rewrite their essays but doesn’t say what he wants to: that they should write honestly.

Charlie blanks the screen out during Zoom sessions so they cannot see him. He weighs more than 270kg (this from other reviewers who claim 600 lbs).

Liz (Hong Chau) is a nurse and friend who shops for Charlie and treats him because he will not go to hospital. (Charlie says he cannot afford it but has lied to Liz. He has money saved which he wants to leave to his estranged daughter, Ellie).

Liz is dishonest because she is saving Charlie using her medical knowledge but enabling his obesity with the rubbish food she buys for his consumption.

Ellie (Sadie Sink) is a troubled teenage girl who has not seen her father in eight years. She says she hates everyone but it is an apparent protective mask because she does not fit in with society expectations.

Thomas (Ty Simpkins) is a missionary. He isn’t really. He’s a kid who has run away from his Iowa family after stealing the petty cash from his church.

Mary (Samantha Morton) is Charlie’s ex-wife and Ellie’s mother. She is embittered by his leaving her for a man. Her dishonesty stems from not telling Ellie that Charlie has provided for her all along.

A pizza delivery man is dishonest because he sounds kindly and caring when speaking to Charlie through the front door but shakes his head and mutters ‘Jesus!’ when he waits one night to catch a glimpse of his long-time customer.

As viewers we are allowed to be appalled by Charlie’s body but realise he is a kindly person who left his family for love – an older-age student named Alan, who Charlie met when he was a lot lighter and teaching on campus.

Alan was also a missionary but the guilt he felt, in part, by being disowned by his parents had him go into decline during his relationship with Charlie. He has taken his own life.

This incident sent Charlie into his spiral of withdrawal from mainstream life and massive bad eating.

His one attachment to love is Ellie – who he is forbidden to see – and an essay she wrote as a 12-year-old. Describing Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Ellie had written: ‘This book made me think of my own life and then be glad for it.’ Charlie the literary scholar holds it dear because it is ‘an honest piece of writing.’

The Whale drips with metaphor and cliche and religion plays a key background role in the hope or despair of the characters. I’m sure the good people of Smalltown, Idaho are similarly absorbed?

Twice, Thomas says ‘I really think God  brought me here for a reason,’ a line as much to do with his own salvation as that of Charlie who he feels he has been sent to save. 

But saving is not on the table. Charlie’s blood pressure is so high he should be in emergency and death awaits.

In an atmosphere where outside it always seems to be raining, Charlie gets himself off the sofa and walks towards his daughter, in a climactic resurrection of sorts. She is standing at the open front door with the background bathed in white, clear light. Some honesty has been achieved between the two.

Fraser has been widely lauded for his performance. He is superb.

However, Chau more than excels in the role of Liz. Her concern and sense of betrayal at one point is palpable.

The Whale is directed by Darren Aronofsky, a known creator of quirky films, none of which I have seen. 

His long-time collaborating cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, is behind the camera and has created a claustrophobic set, enhanced by the unusual framing of the screen in a more square than rectangle way (I am informed this is called 1:33). The technique adds to the viewers’ discomfort.

Almost all the drama occurs in Charlie’s sitting room and the play’s creator, Samuel D Hunter, also wrote the film’s screenplay.

Entertaining: No. 

Respected: Most certainly.


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