The Whale is full of great performances. Everyone’s talking about Brendan Fraser – understandably so, in a technically accomplished and emotionally compelling role despite the prosthetics he is wearing – but Hong Chau (Oscar-nominated), Sadie Sink, Samantha Morton, Ty Simpkins, all bring quality work to the table. Darren Aronofsky, for better or worse, is able to get good performances out of great actors. But all of this is in service of a film that mistakes sentiment for profundity, that resorts to cliche and melodrama, and which suffers from thin characterisation that is saved by actors who elevate the material far beyond what it’s actually saying.
Fraser plays Charlie, a dying man. Morbidly obese as a result of an eating disorder prompted by the death of his partner, Charlie doesn’t leave the house and struggles to leave his sofa; he can’t walk unaided, and he relies on his friend-slash-nurse Liz (Chau) to look after him. Charlie is filled with shame; he won’t even open the door to the pizza guy, and when he teaches English classes online, he pretends to his students that his camera is broken. The film is about many things: shame (about fatness, about parental failings, and about the shame attributed to Charlie by others concerning his homosexuality), sacrifice (Charlie refuses to spend his savings on potentially life-saving hospital treatment because he wants to give all the money to his daughter; Liz gives up much of her own life to try and care for her friend, whose partner was her brother), and truth. The problem is that so much of the film’s philosophy is skin-deep; as Charlie says when Liz jokingly threatens to stab him, his vital organs are probably two-feet deep into his body. There’s no interest in this film in getting beneath the surface.
Part of the issue is that the film mistakes trite confessionals for meaningful engagement. The tired, tired tropes of the filmic English professor sum up everything that is wrong with The Whale. Firstly, yet again, the film leans into acceptance of the professor who falls in love with his student, painting this as somehow an acceptable extension of Charlie’s empathetic engagement with his students (the film finds an issue, but the issue is that he left his wife and daughter, not that he fell in love with a student) rather than an abuse of trust. Charlie’s abusiveness towards his students continues in his manipulation of them: his lying about his refusal to turn on his camera; his control of them as they sit, silently, listening to him ramble on about form and give banal (so banal) notes on the ‘truth of your argument’; and finally his overt treatment of them as some kind of therapy group, as he sends them messages demanding that they FUCK THE READINGS and WRITE SOMETHING HONEST while on a self-destructive eating binge, and then reading out their single-sentence replies as if they are profound. The film’s version of the Dead Poet’s Society desk-standing moment is Charlie taking off his headset to whisper into the microphone, telling them that college doesn’t matter but that their banal expressions of truth do, and then throwing his laptop across the room while they’re still on the call. All of this is framed as if he’s cutting through the bullshit to find something profound, rather than instead indulging in validation of the most entry-level expressions of superficial confession.
Part of the problem here is that Charlie is presented as an ostensibly sympathetic character. He has deep sad eyes, he’s interested in being positive despite his health issues, he tries to see the good in people, and at the end of the film he experiences a kind of epiphany on the moment of death. But everything in his life feels so desperately manipulative. Liz calls him out for repeatedly saying ‘sorry’, but the truth is he isn’t sorry enough; he is deliberately killing himself by refusing to go to the hospital in order to give his money to his kid, and in doing so keeping Liz connected to him. He manipulates his sixteen-year-old daughter – who he hasn’t seen in eight years – into spending time with him by promising to give her all his money, despite the fact that he’s already set this up. He forces those around him into having to express his idea of truth, but he’s uninterested in creating an environment where people can actually be emotionally honest with each other – and when they are emotionally honest with him, he lashes out with emotion himself, demanding that people take on his pain.
This is to take the dimmest possible view of the film. As a depiction of manipulative shame, it still works, and the performances elevate the material. Samantha Morton is killing it this year with effectively one-scene roles in mediocre films, and she’s no exception here as Charlie’s ex-wife, an alcoholic who has raised their daughter alone, and refused to give Charlie contact because she thinks their daughter is a monster and she didn’t want Charlie to think she was a bad mother. And Sadie Sink does bold work as Ellie, a part written as far too one-note, a caricature of a self-conscious bad girl lashing out at the world, but whom Sink imbues with empathy. The stand-out is Chau’s Liz, who is really the main victim of Charlie’s approach to self-destruction, and who is processing her own grief at her brother’s death. But really, it’s basic melodrama with an artsy sheen.
And for all that some have tried to get around it, it’s a deeply fatphobic film. It’s not so much about Fraser putting on the fat-suit, although that’s part of it. It’s that the film is obsessed with the body and with making it look as disgusting as possible. This is a tricky issue, of course; this isn’t a film which is saying it’s bad to be more than a size 10, it’s a film looking at a serious medical condition that is life-ending, and to glamorise it would be equally irresponsible. But the film spectacularises and makes monstrous the body, and indeed keeps insisting on divorcing the person from their body. For all that the missionary who comes into Charlie’s life highlights the idea that Charlie should shed his sinful (homosexual) body and embrace the spirit, the film does lean into the body as punishment which needs to be escaped; Charlie’s liberation – through death – from his body does play as a kind of religious transfiguration, which also weirdly and surely not deliberately aligns with the rejection of homosexuality that the missionary pushed towards. For a film that I think wants to be pro-LGBTQ+, it kills its queers while also repeatedly staging an argument about leaving one’s sinful and/or disgusting body behind. And spiritual salvation comes in the repeated reading of a pretty basic essay by his daughter about Moby Dick which starts and ends at the entry-level position of ‘I found a connection to my life’. And this is perhaps the problem; that Charlie and the film seem to think that making any kind of connection, rather than working at one, is enough.