A faithful, and faith-filled adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 play, The Whale is set within four walls: the neglected, darkened living room of online English lecturer Charlie. By honing in on the final week of its protagonist’s life, it examines grand themes – life, death, religion, shame, forgiveness – and invokes classical literature such as Moby Dick and even The Bible. Charlie (Brendan Fraser) has become morbidly obese following the suicide of his late partner Alan, and as his own death rapidly approaches, he attempts to reconcile with his estranged daughter (Sadie Sink) and ex-wife (Samantha Morton). Starkly different from the visual spectacle and surrealism of Darren Aronofsky’s previous work, The Whale stays true to the spartan settings of the play.
Aronofsky is not exactly subtle when it comes to hammering home that Charlie is to be viewed as a figure of tragedy. Rob Simonsen’s dramatic score, strings trilling every time a meatball sandwich enters view, borders on ridiculous. Unlike the play, The Whale’s camera bursts into the bathroom during one scene and lingers on Charlie’s body as he showers. Another early scene, in which he almost dies from a heart attack while masturbating to gay porn, feels far more voyeuristic (and callous) than it needs to be. Certain moments later on may prove upsetting or challenging for anybody with lived experience of disordered eating.
Though The Whale’s claustrophobic setting is effective on screen – the stagey dialogue providing an interesting stylistic touch – several characters lack nuance, and the more poetic passages feel like unfinished flourishes. Charlie’s family’s sheer hypocrisy plays an important part – they judge him for his perceived moral failings while necking vodka, misusing sleeping pills, and harbouring secret shames – but most characters who burst in and out of his living room feel flat and unfinished.
Portraying Charlie’s self-destructive teenage daughter Ellie, Sink (Stranger Things) gives a performance that is largely one note: angry. Accidentally comedic, it lends her character a soap-y shallowness. Elsewhere, Marvel alum Ty Simpkins brings a wide-eyed, squeaky-clean innocence to runaway Mormon missionary Thomas, but curiously Aronofsky’s adaptation omits a key plot point. In the original play, it’s implied that Thomas is running from the intense shame he feels at his own homosexuality – denying his own desires in a fruitless attempt to save his soul by ‘fixing’ others. Here though, Thomas is merely a Bible-wielding caricature with an occasional pot habit.
Meanwhile, Charlie demands honesty from everyone around him, and walks away from his young daughter and wife to be with the man he loves. He’s also adamant that he won’t touch the money he’s saved up for Ellie, even if it means he cannot afford to go to hospital. The contrast between the two characters all but evaporates in Aronofsky’s version.
It should be said that Brendan Fraser – making his long-awaited comeback to cinema – imbues The Whale’s central figure with as much empathy and care as possible within the considerable confines of the script. And Hong Chau exudes both coldness and caring; whenever she enters the room, more clumsily handled elements suddenly seem to settle. Still, even these strong performances can’t quite focus The Whale – a story which purports to grapple with existential themes, but never really makes sense of anything.
- Director: Darren Aronofsky
- Starring: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau
- Release date: December 9 (in US cinemas); UK release TBC