Writer Samuel D Hunter has channeled his own story and experiences into The Whale. From being raised in a conservative Catholic community to being outed for his sexuality to taking comfort in overeating and his work as an English teacher—all these aspects have found their way into a portrait of a self-destructive character named Charlie.
Hunter has adapted his own stage play to the screen. Along with director Darren Aronofsky, they want the audience to see Charlie for who he is and to shake people out of their prejudices. Charlie, played brilliantly by Brendan Fraser, is the hurting, overweight teacher, but he is an optimistic, trusting man who looks for good in everyone.
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However, the idea that a man so depressed, so filled with self-loathing and so aware of the ridicule he would face as an obese man, could be so devoid of cynicism is a little hard to swallow.
Charlie teaches online classes, careful to keep his camera switched off at all times so that his students cannot see the obese, unkempt, wheezing man gasping for a few last breaths. He is wrecked with pain, unresolved grief, guilt and a sense of duty towards his daughter. He does not worry about himself. In fact, he does not care much about his own survival.
His singular face time interaction is with his best friend and caregiver Liz who is carrying a humongous amount of grief and pain of her own. Their relationship is complicated and problematic. She checks his vitals, brings him medical aids but also provides him with fatty snacks.
While his dead lover suffered from anorexia and other issues, Charlie is suffering from every devastating effect of obesity. Weighing approximately 600 pounds, he is killing himself by overeating and by claiming he cannot afford hospital care. His obesity is extreme and The Whale is more a doomsday drama than a survival drama. Even those around Charlie aren’t completely committed to saving him. They threaten to call the medics, but don’t.
When he’s told his days are limited, Charlie reaches out to his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), a foul-mouthed, angry-at-the-world teenager. Charlie regrets abandoning her eight years prior when he left his wife and child for his true love.
Brendan Fraser underwent four hours of prostheses and make-up and stepped into a fat suit to transform into the character. It’s a searing performance with Fraser giving Charlie a cadence and gentle speech that’s comforting and passionate, starkly contrasted with his violent relationship with food. Aronofsky wants you to watch this gargantuan man eat himself to death and he wants you to be empathetic, which is hard to do when the camera follows him even into the shower.
Set entirely in one darkened, festering apartment, with carefully timed entries and exits of characters through one main door that is keeping Charlie cocooned in his self-imposed cave of despair. His interactions with Liz, played wonderfully by Hong Chau, are soulful and complex, unlike the convenience of a new age missionary (Ty Simpkins) showing up at Charlie’s door to save the gay man from damnation.
A deeply moving portrait of loneliness and loss, occasionally melodramatic (as stage plays often tend to be), ‘The Whale’ is also designed to repulse, trigger and evoke admiration for leading actor’s submission to the process.
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