by Robbie Jones
TW: Please be advised that this review, and the film itself, deals heavily with the subjects of fatphobia and eating disorders.
They say Hollywood loves a comeback story, and that couldn’t be more true for Brendan Fraser; beloved for his action and comedy roles in the 90s and 00s, things went south for Fraser’s career as his personal life became plagued by so many difficulties, until he had faded from the limelight. Over the last few years, Fraser has made a return to acting, with recurring roles in TV shows and in the works of acclaimed directors such as Steven Soderbergh and Martin Scorsese. To say Fraser has been welcomed back with open arms would be an understatement. Fans have made it clear just how happy they are to see him again – even to a point that’s incredibly condescending, if well-meaning – and that goodwill and affection have carried through the film festivals of 2022 as Fraser takes the lead in Darren Aronofsky’s latest film.
Based on the play by Samuel D. Hunter – who also wrote the screenplay for this film – the story centres around Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a middle-aged online college teacher who weighs 600 pounds. A traumatic past has left Charlie with an eating disorder, and he stays isolated in his small apartment, doing nothing but teaching and eating. As his health begins to deteriorate, Charlie reaches out to his 17-year-old daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), a rebellious, sardonic teenager whom Charlie left when she was just 8 years old, and strikes up a bargain to spend time together. In addition to his daughter’s volatile visits, he also regularly sees his nurse and best friend Liz (Hong Chau) and pushy missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkin), both of whom are trying desperately to help Charlie, though not in ways that Charlie necessarily wants.
In a surprise appearance alongside Aronofsky at a screening during the BFI London Film Festival, Hunter reflected on the real-life circumstances involving his sexuality as a young man, and how the eating disorder he developed in response to this trauma-informed his writing of The Whale. His empathy, and experience, are both present in the film, which is not only essential but will hopefully be a huge relief for many who naturally had concerns about how the story would tackle its depiction of fat people. The negative attitudes and expectations levied at fat people are still very present in the world, and it’s understandable that people would be nervous about how a film concerning a 600-pound man titled The Whale would go about presenting this.
It’s important to note that the film has had divided responses, from many who have found the film fatphobic and many who feel that the film handles it well, and it’s crucial to understand that this topic is not as simple as some would like to believe and we have to be mindful of these different perspectives and the conversations we can have about our different experiences. From my point of view, The Whale handles the subject matter deftly and compassionately.
The Whale is not a cautionary tale; it’s not designed to preach or educate you about the dangers of being overweight, nor does it offer any kind of judgement. What the film is really about is the all-encompassing evil that is eating disorders, and how they can take hold of quite literally anyone. The trauma surrounding Charlie’s past is rooted in an eating disorder and sparked his own. The film functions just like any other film about an unwell person seeking to find peace – If the lead character had cancer, we wouldn’t question the premise at all. Eating disorders are a disease, and Hunter and Aronofsky offer no cruelty towards him for this, only compassion.
That’s not to say there aren’t more vicious perspectives present in the film, but they come from characters whose point of view we’re not supposed to share. They come most prominently from Ellie who, in true edgy teenager fashion, has no filter when it comes to addressing his weight or using other uncomfortable slurs. He also faces a more passive, pleasant-seeming form of judgement from Thomas, who believes that God sent him to Charlie’s house to help him through this period of life, a belief that becomes overwhelmingly more insulting as time goes by and leads to some of Charlie’s most powerful moments. Liz is perhaps the only non-judgemental presence in his life; in addition to working at a hospital, Liz helps Charlie get his groceries and clean around the house, as well as keeping an eye on his health. Charlie refuses to go to a hospital, something that drives Liz crazy but she begrudgingly respects.
With the exception of one light-hearted joke, Liz doesn’t care about Charlie’s body or what he looks like, only about his health, as any caring friend would. She understands why he won’t go to a hospital and she doesn’t try to force him, she just wishes he would go because the thought of losing her friend hurts her. Hong Chau brings these aspects of Liz to life wonderfully, in a performance that will hopefully not be forgotten about come awards season. The range of reactions to Charlie and his circumstances are storytelling decisions that serve the film exceptionally well, and don’t ever feel like the real criticism of those making it. Like many films based on stage plays, Aronofsky frames The Whale in a manner that feels very theatrical, taking place almost entirely within the confines of Charlie’s apartment where Charlie lies at the centre as these other characters come and go. It’s very well directed and does a great job of highlighting the isolation that Charlie has put himself in, as well as the weight of the other characters’ actions and perspectives when trapped in such close quarters with them.
Speaking from the experience of seeing many fat characters degraded constantly in cinema, Charlie’s day-to-day life as a fat person goes a long way to recontextualize that representation; I could guarantee you’ve seen at least one comedy film, if not dozens, that flippantly makes it’s fat characters the butt of the joke. The ways in which they navigate everyday life has provided endless fodder for careless filmmakers to make fun of for years, and there are moments in this story that have been played for a laugh in lesser films, so it’s striking to see them presented as not only serious, but totally innocuous. More to the point, it’s made very clear that Charlie himself is not helpless. He relies on support, as everyone does when they’re ill, but he is shown to be more than capable of fulfilling his day-to-day life. On top of that, he is a deeply intelligent, passionate person. He has a love for essay-writing that becomes a crucial aspect of the narrative, and tries his best to impart this passion onto his students, and inspire the best in his daughter in her academic work.
And that, above all else, is the true heart and soul of The Whale; Charlie’s optimism. Despite his pain and grief, and the events that lead him to his current mental state, Charlie has an undying hopefulness to him. He tries his hardest to see the best in people, and finds true happiness in it too. Presented with Ellie who, by all accounts, presents herself as aggressive, off-putting and bratty – the result of being unable to process her own trauma (A vulnerability that Sadie Sink nails to a heartbreaking level) – and even her own mother has doubts about her humanity. Yet when Charlie sees her and spends even the smallest amount of time with her, he sees her as an amazing person. The desire to find that in her and convince her of it is electrifying and drives him forward. He could write her off just as easily as everyone else, but his undeluded belief that she is a beautiful and talented person is inspiring.
That is easily the most breathtaking aspect of the film and is brought to life phenomenally by Brendan Fraser. It feels like there’s not much more that can even be said at this point; the man has been receiving love and praise from all cylinders ever since the film’s festival run started, and it almost feels cliché at this point to praise him and be so happy he’s back…but the feeling is simply too powerful to ignore for the sake of originality. Fraser is mindblowing as he sinks into a character so complex and endearing, and that classic charm he has is essential for making this film as emotionally investing as it is. Come awards season, Fraser will be taking home many trophies, and it will be truly deserved.
The Whale is not an easy film to take in, but it’s incredibly rewarding. A beautiful performance at the centre of a compassionate and respectful story, paired with the incredible direction of Darren Aronofsky, makes it one of the must-see films of the year.
The Whale screened at BFI London Film Festival