I would pay real money to be a fly on the wall when The Whale was pitched around Los Angeles.
“Well, it’s a great part. Aronofsky’s helming it, and it’s a Broadway adaptation, you know, it’ll be artsy, Oscar-worthy stuff….it’s just…the lead, well, I’ll level with you: he’s a morbidly obese English professor named Charlie, and he likes three things: masturbating to porn, reading Moby Dick, and committing suicide by hamburger.”
I’m sure a lot of feathers were ruffled. A lot of casting agents fired. And now a lot of actors are kicking themselves as Brendan Fraser marches into the limelight and laps up standing ovations at Cannes. It’s a redemption arc for the once neglected actor that’s so massive, even Aronofsky has been personally taken aback by the “love the world has for Brendan”. And it’s underscored by a vulnerable lead performance that instantly nails The Whale’s core motif: there’s something powerful about giving up our vanities.
Like a cynical 80s sitcom, lovey-dovey and tacky emotions emanate from a film that should be as morbid as Charlie’s medical terminology; as if the cast left a Happy Meal by a graveyard. It’s sourced, mainly, from Fraser’s ability to conjure up a pug-like lovability as he mourns his life, teaches online, and eats away the pain. Even while weighed down by a 300-pound fat suit that took five hours for Fraser put on and off, and trapped inside a movie that’s comfortable taking the audience only a few steps from Charlie’s front door in rural Idaho, every element of the film supports the lead’s strangely optimistic nature. Adrian Monroe’s genius makeup and prosthetics is a lynchpin to Charlie’s condition, but so is Aronofsky’s long-time cinematographer Libatique, who creates a candid, beautifully lit set that gives “an honesty to the film” where “any artifice would have stood out” in Charlie’s bookcovered prison. Filming over COVID as a small intimate crew, supporting performances from Charlie’s troubled preacher (Ty Simkins), despairing nurse (Hong Chau), embittered wife (Samantha Horton) and psychotic daughter (Sadie Sink) all elevate the claustrophobic set into a Machiavellian drama that keeps Charlie’s intimate story turning.
With the struggling professor left at the mercy of blood pressure, online students and estranged visitors, Aronofsky might have had Deux Ex Machina on speed dial because this personal conflict comes to Charlie’s doorstep every ten minutes. It’s inevitable that these plot points might seem trite for a lead too obese to walk four paces unaided, but it’s telling that Fraser’s performance only enhances the core vulnerability of the film as he tries to connect. Speaking with Libatique after the film’s screening, and fresh off an ending that won’t leave an eye dry, many viewers were eager to know how the team created the monster of Charlie: what went into the Godzilla-like shake of his steps, and the Frakenstinian narrative of a bright man trapped inside something so outwardly grotesque. We listened carefully that this was never the intended image; and we decided, at the time, this was a cast member being polite, avoiding the fatphobic angle some reviewers have latched onto. Now, after a second watch, and listening to Sam Hunter (the original playwright) candid admission of his own personal parallels to Charlie, it’s easier to see what he meant. The Whale isn’t a story of a monster, but of a person convinced he is. And it’s a story of how pain, grief and abandonment will inevitably metastasise themselves.
Ending on its lofty orchestral score, and against the glitz and glamour of modern movies, there’s a sweetness to Charlie’s plight in The Whale. Less about body than spirit, if you pay attention to Hunter’s lines and look past the surface—you’ll realise it’s never too late for a change of heart.