Review: ‘The Whale’

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The Whale, directed by Darren Aronofsky, has managed to both amaze and anger audiences. One need only scroll through its reviews to find that “mixed response” would be a major understatement. But within the criticism, there’s a common theme of outrage over misrepresentation, over people feeling as though the story is similar to their life but not exactly accurate, which ignores the real beauty of the film.

The Whale is first and foremost a story about a man who is complex and individual in his own right. His experiences cannot be reduced to his sexuality or his disability, but rather these are facets of his life that inform his experiences.

In just under 2 hours, The Whale guides you through a week in the life of Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a 600lb gay man immobilised by his obesity. Over the course of this week, we watch from the confines of Charlie’s apartment as he tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink). 

Over the week, we learn more about Charlie and his relationship with the cast of characters who all seem to have one thing in common: they want something from someone. Whether it’s his closest and only friend Liz (Hong Chau) begging him to get medical help, or the missionary boy Thomas (Ty Simpkins) who visits Charlie to help him find God, or his daughter Ellie who claims to want his money – everyone wants to help him, be helped by him, or both. They, like much of the critical audience, view Charlie as a message or lesson to be interpreted and reacted to, rather than a person to be understood. This is genuinely fascinating and pays homage to some of the dynamics involved in relationships which navigate physical and mental illness – it is not enjoyable to watch but is nonetheless interesting to see.

It pays homage to some of the dynamics involved in relationships which navigate physical and mental illness

Watching The Whale almost makes you feel weighed down. Most of the film takes place in Charlie’s apartment, a perpetually dark environment with covered windows. Charlie’s health issues are exaggerated by the almost over-sensitised sounds of his breathing, grunting and coughing. We don’t often get cuts between him lifting himself off the couch, positioning himself at his mobility aid and making his way across rooms, we watch him in painstakingly real time. It is exhausting to watch and makes you feel frustrated, a little bit helpless. It’s an interesting choice, perhaps an attempt to make the audience feel a sense of what it is like to be Charlie, to be shuttered in and limited by physical constraints. It is not a kind depiction and is, at times, somewhat horrifying. 

Throughout the film Aronofsky employs an ocean motif stemming both from the garish comparison (which is never made explicit) between Charlie’s body and that of a whale, heightened by his ongoing fascination with an essay about Moby Dick. This is achieved through the almost haunting lack of light and the thundering storm that often echoes outside, alongside dramatic swells in the soundtrack which give the impression of being on a ship in the eye of a storm. It is often over-the-top and can sometimes become exploitative, treating Charlie’s life like the stuff of horror films.

Aside from the direction we must laud the abilities of those on screen who bring life to this apartment scenery. There is an all-too-familiar tradition of the Academy Awards fawning after non-disabled actors in disabled roles (Dustin Hoffman I’m looking at you), but it would be difficult to deny Fraser the respect and applause he deserves for this performance. His honesty and ability for natural delivery is astounding, embodying Charlie with a real complexity. Watching him perform, it is only the sometimes-overbearing soundtrack which reminds you that you are watching a piece of fiction, and not peering into someone’s life.

An intensely intimate and sometimes voyeuristic insight into someone’s life

What is perhaps most interesting about The Whale is its versatility. Not because it says a lot, but because it purposefully says very little­ ­– or, at least, doesn’t commit to a singular idea or message. There are so many themes running through the film, largely coming from Charlie in his teachings to his online students or to his daughter: be authentic, care about people, not everyone can save or be saved. But none of these could define the film, which refuses to commit to a wholly negative or positive vision. Charlie is not shown as an incredible individual down on his luck, nor is he a cruel or pathetic man who forces those around him to take care of him while refusing help. He is a person experiencing something very complex and sad. It is a story, not a lesson. 

This film probably won’t be your favourite film, and the film’s quality or merit won’t necessarily mean you enjoy it. But for its over-dramatic soundtrack or the heightened sensitivity over the sounds of Charlie eating, The Whale manages to remain incredibly real, more like an intensely intimate and sometimes voyeuristic insight into someone’s life than a matinee screening. Go into the film without the expectation of learning anything, and you will experience so much more. 

Image: Pietro Luca Cassarino via Unsplash

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