A new film from acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky will pique the interest of many cinemagoers, but the headlines surrounding The Whale belong to Brendan Fraser’s transformative performance. After starring in many popular late nineties and early noughties movies, Fraser took a hiatus from acting due to several personal problems. The Whale announces Fraser’s return in spectacular fashion, with a devastating turn that positions him as one of the frontrunners for best actor come awards season.
Adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his own 2012 stage play, The Whale follows 600-pound, housebound English tutor Charlie (Fraser) and unfolds in the confines of his apartment. Following the suicide of his late partner Alan, who he walked out on his family for, Charlie has regressed into isolation and almost eaten himself to death. He can barely move around his apartment and the slightest exertion leaves him drenched in sweat and spluttering for breath. When teaching online English classes, Charlie leaves his camera off to hide his appearance from his pupils. His only visitors include nurse and best friend Liz (Hong Chau) and Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a persistent Christian missionary. As Charlie’s congestive heart failure worsens, he seeks to reconnect with his estranged 17-year-old daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) before it’s too late.
In a chamber piece like this, the film’s success relies heavily on committed performances, fortunately Fraser and his brilliant supporting cast deliver emphatically. Under layers of astoundingly convincing prosthetics and make-up, Fraser is truly a revelation in one of the most heart-breaking performances of the year. Charlie is an innately optimistic, generous man who sees the best in humanity despite all of the grief and hardships he has faced. Fraser captures this kindness wrapped up in pain, trauma and regret with such gut-wrenching sincerity and aplomb. The parallels between Fraser and Charlie’s lives adds a further layer of poignancy and intensifies the film’s hefty emotional impact.
Opposite Fraser, Chau’s magnetic supporting performance should also be in the running for many accolades. Chau heartbreakingly portrays Liz’s mixture of compassion and frustration at Charlie’s lack of effort to keep himself alive. Liz’s exchanges with Charlie provide some of the film’s most emotionally harrowing scenes as well as moments of welcome comedic relief. Sink is also terrific as Charlie’s daughter – abrasive and insulting on the surface, but slowly and subtly warming to her father. The film’s stirring endnote between the pair will leave many audiences emotionally overwhelmed.
Like much of Aronofsky’s back catalogue, The Whale explores themes of death, religion, addiction, grief and a desperate longing for love. It can at times feel unrelentingly grim and melodramatic, but it’s also Aronofsky’s most humanistic and hopeful film. His intelligent more restrained direction makes the most of the claustrophobic setting and places emphasis on the captivating actors. Rob Simonsen’s dramatic orchestral score matches the intensity of the performances and adds layers to the emotion on display.
As the end credits roll, the power of Fraser’s searingly honest, career-best performance lingers, its beauty may just leave you feeling a little more hopeful for humanity too.