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The Whale ★★★★★



Directors: Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, and Ty Simpkins

Release: 3rd February 2023

The Whale is a film about chances. Not second chances, not even third, but the idea that we have a chance to exhibit our good qualities despite our bad choices. Aronofsky has made a career of forcing audiences to relinquish their perspectives to characters and stories that reflect these ideas of ‘good’ and bad’ as what drives belief, hinders communication, and ultimately boxes in our sense of self. His characters either believe in redemption only to find the world offers something drastically opposite, or vice versa, where they think they are incapable of being better, only to find salvation by the end. In Black Swan, it’s the former, while in The Wrestler, it is the latter. The Whale plays into both sides of Aronofsky’s affinity for man vs the nature of things theme, creating his best film, but also goes beyond it to focus on empathy, forgiveness, and addiction as integral aspects of the human condition. Unfortunately, having been caught in a storm of controversy in the last few months, The Whale remains a behemoth of emotions and a deep dive into a character’s point of view of himself, his failings and his ascensions. It remains the most empathetic film of 2022 as it asks the viewer for more than their tears or sympathy; it demands your ability to believe in people at their worst, knowing full well just how amazing they have the capacity to be. 

Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is a severely obese, middle-aged online English teacher. He lives alone, unable to leave his home, and has been divorced for over a decade and, in some ways, is still reeling from losing his partner from some years prior. The film details his interactions with his nurse (Hong Chau), a religious missionary (Ty Simpkins), and his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink) throughout a week through which Charlie is experiencing heart failure. 

The Whale is absolutely annihilating. This film submerges you into its character’s perceptual view of themselves and the space they inhabit. Charlie’s perception is one of defeat, self-loathing and an absence of spiritualism of any form of God. As such, the film’s formal composition is one that is undoubtedly overloaded with a sense of disgust, Aronofsky’s intent on having the audience be a part of Charlie’s sustained emotive state of shame. It’s engrossing to be so much a part of Charlie’s space as he is, but it is also overwhelming when certain formal elements like brighter lighting, wider framing, and more cohesive editing reveal subtle changes in the way Charlie sees himself and those around him. It all makes for difficult, albeit necessary viewing; as Charlie begins to see the light in himself that he so vehemently advocates for in others, we feel it alongside him. Aronofsky’s direction has never been better, these filmmaking forays paying emotional dividends as the film’s use of space is equally claustrophobic as it is freeing, the camera’s free-flowing movement creating stark contrasts with moments where it is an unmovable, static force that forces Charlie and the audience into states of confrontation and catharsis. 

But what of Charlie’s emotional state? What is to be said of the way the film conveys his feelings? For me, the film is acute in its discussion of addiction, as all four of the main players are addicted; addicted to marijuana, to social media, to helping, and to food. Charlie does have an eating disorder, but he is also is an addict, battling his emotional and spiritual void that is in anguish over his loss, over his poor decisions as a parent, over his mistakes as a husband, over his failings as a person; he eats to silence the thoughts his mind is unable to handle. The film has this approach of emotional emptiness to each of its characters. Still, particularly Charlie’s daughter, an exceptional Sadie Sink, is like this as a result of her father’s own emptiness. This mutual understanding is what gives the pair an undeniable but tenable connection for their relationship to take root in. Charlie’s faith that his daughter can be the person she never offered him redemption and a way out of his emotional state to be ‘sober’. For me, it is this approach to issues of body dysmorphia, depression, and obesity that renders the film essential. Speaking from and beyond personal experience, The Whale is empathetic partly because it is so authentic and genuine to the mental state of people suffering from one or all of the above. 

The performances are astounding. Ty Simpkins, in his first screen role in some time, brings an altruistic and self-aggrandizing demeanour to Charlie’s apartment, finding a justification in faith by attempting to exploit Charlie’s absence of it. Hong Chau is quietly devastating, her presence providing Charlie with an outlet for self-deprecating humour and a connection to what he has lost, a lovely sentiment Chau channels to be a burden that only gets heavier as Charlie’s heart condition worsens. Sink is demonic; she is a tornado of woe and a monolith of total nihilism and narcissism. It is a commendation to both the film’s emotional beats and to Sink’s performance that her actions can be indecipherable in their interpretations of if she was helping or hurting; because it does not matter; what matters is that Charlie believes she was helping. And Charlie is what it is all about. Fraser steps beyond himself or the idea of a role like this and inhabits Charlie with constant belief in empathy, even when he never believes in himself. The performance is a perfect weave between physical and intonational and captures the dialogue’s layers of biblicisms and religious connotations and the space around him. Fraser transcends as Charlie ascends, his performance so moving that catching the trailer in cinemas this month has brought me to tears all over again. 

The Whale is presented in a 4:3 aspect ratio, liberating Charlie from the wide world he doesn’t see himself as a part of. It keeps him and us comfortable in what’s claustrophobic. The film can sometimes feel overwritten, blatant in its messaging, or reactionary in its politics. Still, with patience and empathy, it’s a film that becomes one that advocates for compassion by practising it, but more importantly, by relating the all too human experience of the difficulty of expressing empathy towards ourselves. Charlie and we have earned a moment of relief and catharsis by the end of the film that neither word can truly encapsulate; Aronofsky transports Charlie through space and time to convey to his daughter the importance and goodwill that comes from being amazing. And that’s precisely what The Whale is amazing.

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