A fatsuit-wearing Brendan Fraser powers a troubling but mesmeric film about a morbidly obese English professor trying to reconnect with his estranged daughter. Darren Aronofsky’s new movie is like the artery-choking junk food that sustains Charlie (Fraser): it cannot possibly be good for you but you cannot resist it either.
The Oscar-nominated The Whale is based on Samuel D Hunter’s play of the same name. Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique convert a text meant for the stage and restricted almost entirely to a single location into an intimate and, at times, claustrophobic visual experience. Within the squarish frames created by the chosen screen ratio of 1.33:1, Charlie’s misshapen body and his health problems – he can’t even laugh without wheezing – become achingly clear.
Charlie might be lonely, troubled by his past and struggling with his extreme weight, but he is remarkably upbeat as well as unfailingly polite. The homebound professor’s only regular visitor is Liz (Hong Chau, the marvellous actor from The Menu). Not even the barbs hurled by Charlie’s daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) can deter him from his self-healing quest.
Hunter’s screenplay is dipped in Christian themes of sin and salvation. When religious preacher Thomas (Ty Simpkins) swings by with a promise of redemption, Charlie listens – and then has his own riposte to Thomas’s earnest attempts at proselytisation.
Might there also be an allegory at work in a film that takes several cues from Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick? The Whale is set before Donald Trump’s election as America’s President in 2017. The end-of-days theme is enhanced as much by the endless rain and the darkness that pervades Charlie’s apartment as by television reports warning of Trump’s ascendance.
The movie is delicately poised between exploitation and empathy. Charlie is initially heard rather than seen, emerging out of a pool of blackness to reveal himself sprawled on a sofa from which he can barely move. The astonishment of the first sighting of Charlie is real, and entirely intended by a director who is no stranger to shock tactics.
The brilliant British actor Samantha Morton, as Charlie’s ex-wife Mary, has a blistering confrontation with Charlie. Morton is sadly not on the screen long enough, with the focus being on the frequently obnoxious Ellie and her troubled relationship with her father.
As the narrative wears on, disgust gives way to admiration. It’s a measure of Aronofsky’s compassion for Charlie and Brendan Fraser’s complete immersion in his character that we are able to look beyond the layers of prosthetic adipose and see the man for who he is.
Fraser works as much with his eyes and voice as with his makeup-enhanced figure to bring Charlie to life. Best known for his turns in such schlocky adventures as George of the Jungle and The Mummy, Fraser commands undivided attention by wearing a fatsuit but never letting the fatsuit wear him.