The Whale releases in theaters on Dec. 9, 2022.
I’m fat. There’s no getting around that. So, unsurprisingly, The Whale – a story about an overweight man – had potential to be a deeply personal film for me. Writing about it, even more so. What I wasn’t expecting was just how personal.
The Whale tells the story of Charlie (Brendan Fraser) – a 600lb man with increasingly complex health issues and a life full of regret. I may not be 600lb but I can sure relate to that last part. Like I said, I’m fat. Much like Charlie, “I was always big, I just let it get out of control.” Charlie’s life spirals following the death of his partner. For me, it was after getting divorced. But the results were similar – comfort food quickly became a few pounds, a stone or two. Then you look back and wonder how the hell you got there.
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We don’t see that with Charlie – just the end result, his bloated, 600lb-frame a testament to the devastation his life has wrought upon him. Director Darren Aronofsky paints a grim portrait of poor Charlie. He’s a reclusive English teacher who’s cut himself off from the world. He’s so embarrassed by himself that he keeps his webcam switched off while delivering his college courses. I did exactly the same when I began studying one.
That’s why Fraser’s performance hits so hard for me – the sheer authenticity of it. I’ve been there, I get it. I know exactly what it’s like to give up on yourself. I notice the look in his eyes, the guilt when he reaches for another chocolate bar, the anger, and rage, and self-destruction on his face when he gorges himself on another binge. For me, it’s one of the most authentic performances I’ve ever seen on film.
It’s a heavy and emotionally draining performance, too. Charlie is dying – a victim of his own eating, while he clings fanatically to an essay about Moby Dick every time he’s close to his last breath. But Charlie is more than just a fat, dying man. He’s a father, a friend, a grieving lover.
The complexity of Charlie is a testament to the incredible script by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the play on which the film is based. It’s deftly handled by both Aronofsky and Fraser, with a subtlety and grace you won’t expect from beneath a 600lb body mass. And that’s exactly the point.
There’s been some controversy over the decision to put Fraser in a body suit, given the fact that Charlie is portrayed as grotesquely, morbidly obese. But by exaggerating Charlie’s proportions, it allows Aronofsky to hit us even harder with an important truth: Charlie is as human as the rest of us. Much like Walt Whitman in his poem, Song of Myself, Fraser explodes the self, giving us a humane and harrowing glimpse into Charlie’s complex life that most will avoid looking for in the first place.
I can’t remember the last time I saw a fat person portrayed so honestly, and that unflinching authenticity – the good, the bad, the warts and all – makes The Whale important and hugely necessary. In fact, Charlie isn’t made out to be a victim – he’s done some questionable things, too. He’s merely human. Aronofsky gets that point across with poetic beauty.
Charlie’s physical appearance is designed to shock, with some astonishing makeup and prosthetics used to bring Fraser up to that 600lb body mass. There’s an element of sensationalism when you’re faced with Charlie’s naked, showering body, for instance. By exaggerating Charlie to grotesque proportions, it hits even harder when we begin to uncover the anguish that pushed him there.
If Fraser’s performance is at the heart of The Whale then Sadie Sink, who plays his daughter, Ellie, is the soul. The anger bubbling up inside her is a counterpoint to Fraser’s sadness – two ways of coping with tragedy that oppose and clash. Sink brings a phenomenal performance, too, overshadowed only by the brilliance of Fraser in what might be the defining role of his career. Their dynamic brought a tear to my eye more than once.
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Of course, she is Charlie’s white whale – repairing his relationship with her is all-consuming. It’s another element of his personality that comes to light through a mix of incredible performances and subtle direction… not to mention orchestral hits mimicking whale song in an eerie, emotional nod to the story of Moby Dick.
The utter brilliance of The Whale is this: it’s not just about Charlie. It’s about you. How you interact with the film – what you get from it – is what’s important. Aronofsky forces us to face our own prejudices in a subtle way, reassessing how we see Charlie at every step.
The Whale is truly one of the most emotional voyages you’ll take in a theater. A gut-wrenching, tear-jerking story is topped only by Fraser’s performance – a career-defining role that’s surely a contender for Oscars glory. Sink brings a staggeringly off-kilter performance as Ellie, while the whole thing is expertly guided by Aronofsky at the rudder. Hunter charts a course through unfamiliar waters, forcing us to face some uncomfortable truths. Fat people are people, too. Good or bad or everything in between. The Whale shows its 600lb protagonist with a humanity that has long been missing from Hollywood.