We all have been eagerly waiting for Darren Aronofsky’s “The Whale” from the moment a clip of Brendan Fraser receiving a six-minute standing ovation went viral some months ago. In the clip, Brendan Fraser looks awkward and overwhelmed, as if he is unsure of what to do with all the love and kindness the audience is showing him. The reactions—both the audiences’ and Fraser’s—seem to be in direct conversation with the film’s message: They are incapable of not caring.
It is clear that the film is based on the play of the same name, written by Samuel D. Hunter, about a severely obese man, Charlie (Brendan Fraser), who has lost his lover and eats his way through his grief. He has about a week to live and does not want to be saved. Like a play, “The Whale” has limited sets—just one, to be precise: Charlie’s house, which he moves through slowly, laboriously, wheezing and coughing throughout. He never leaves this set, and any other characters he interacts with—his nurse and friend Liz, his estranged daughter, a well-meaning but misguided missionary, and his ex-wife—all come and go through the front door of the house. He watches their shadows ripple across the window blinds as they leave. We watch him.
Everything about “The Whale” encourages suffocation: the single set, in which he seems to barely fit, his struggling through his own bedroom doorway, the square-like 4:3 ratio that tightly frames Charlie in all his enormity, and the strained sound of Charlie’s breathing throughout. And yet, there is a delicateness that this claustrophobia is balanced with. Mark Friedberg and Robert Pyzocha fill the set with details of Charlie’s life and the memories that keep him afloat. Even the wallpaper behind the sofa is blue and resembles ocean waves, but it is so subtle that it’s easy to miss, and that is the point. The design consciously refuses to call attention to itself and quietly elevates a feeling of fragility and tenderness.
The actors deliver what their characters require of them. Sadie Sink is believable as the volatile, hurt teenage daughter; Samantha Morton pulls at your heartstrings as the cynical but not uncaring ex-wife, Ty Simpkins as Thomas, the missionary from New Life, has wonderful chemistry with everyone he interacts with on screen. But through and through, this is Brendan Fraser’s movie. There are moments during Charlie’s monologues or quiet scenes where the music swells like a cue for sentimentality that “The Whale” doesn’t need because Fraser is already so beautiful in his vulnerability. He is full of cracks, and through those cracks, his hope shines. It’s all in his eyes, and the additional paraphernalia is just unnecessary noise and feels a little gimmicky juxtaposed with Fraser’s honest portrayal of someone hopeful even as he loses everything. And quieter still in her excelling performance is Hong Chau, who plays Liz, Charlie’s nurse, who worries for him, cares for him deeply, and also enables him, handing him indulgent junk food every time she sees him. Liz is an impressively complex character, who’s torn between the two ways that she can love Charlie: by taking care of him or understanding that she can’t save him. Also grieving, Liz is Charlie’s foil but not his opposite. They see themselves in each other, and both Fraser and Chau handle that complicated, controlled intimacy with subtlety.
The writing, though structurally sound and consistently engaging, is sometimes a little on the nose. The story reflects on the different ways in which people care. Sometimes misguided or misinterpreted in their actions, the characters find themselves unable to articulate that they love each other. So much of this is clear in the ways that they act: when Ellie, Charlie’s daughter, is given a choice to walk out on Charlie but doesn’t, when Mary, his ex-wife, reveals why she didn’t let Charlie see Ellie, when Thomas refuses to give up on Charlie. It’s in the ways that they navigate each other. For no reason, these actions are then over-explained in Charlie’s dialogues. For a film that is attempting to rely on subtlety, it doesn’t give its audiences enough credit and insists on these disappointing moments of spoon-feeding explanations.
“The Whale” is a departure from the genres that Aronofsky is known for, films that are more disturbing and gory such as “The Black Swan” and “Requiem for a Dream”. And for the most part, it is a huge success. The film manages a difficult balance of finding hope and love and a very dark place. The characters’ desires to be good but not knowing how to is not a new idea in fiction, but the film’s commitment to those characters and their stories makes it such a touching viewing experience. Brendan Fraser is truly special, back on our screens after such a long hiatus, and deserves every bit of praise he has received for this incredibly moving comeback.