Religion often rears its heavy head in the works of controversial writer and director Darren Aronofsky; from Mickey Rourke’s martyrdom in The Wrestler, an Eden allegory in mother!, and of course his epic adaptation of Noah. The biblical overtones return in his latest effort The Whale, which is based upon Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 play of the same name. Brendan Fraser stars as Charlie, a morbidly obese English literature teacher who has become housebound due to his condition. He receives regular visits from his nurse Liz (Hong Chau), estranged teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), and Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a young missionary of the local New Life Church.
Opening with an online college video call, we see a class of students, or disciples if you will, keenly listening to the words of wisdom from a faceless voice in the middle of the screen as Charlie, ashamed by his appearance, won’t switch his camera on. The intimate narrative then builds upon this almost microcosmic concept; stuck within the drab 4:3 ratio confines of his apartment, the camera and the supporting characters orbit our protagonist, a weighty symbol of mass consumption and self-destruction. Tying in with the cultish organisation which Thomas represents, it becomes clear that the world, or at least Charlie’s world, is approaching its apocalypse. He yearns to help anyone but himself and through his conversations with those closest to him, he seeks redemption whilst also battling with self-acceptance, making for a compelling study of his psyche.
Casting the ever-likeable Brendan Fraser in the leading part is a masterstroke in audience manipulation. Charlie can be deceitful and selfish and with a different actor, it might’ve been more difficult to empathise with his flaws. Yet, Fraser gives a doe-eyed warmth to the portrayal that isn’t lost within the cumbersome physical aspects of his performance. However, as good as he is, he’s arguably the least interesting character of the piece. This is open to interpretation but, to me, the other figures signify key components within the subtext at play; Liz is love, Ellie is hate, and Thomas is his complicated relationship with faith. Despite the broad strokes of this restrictive metaphor, they each bring richness to their roles, particularly Sadie Sink whose angst and abrasiveness works really well against the ignorant outwards optimism of her father. Her unlikely alliance with Thomas also provides some minor comic relief from the darker elements.
A bleak exercise in shame and miserabilism, Aronofsky’s The Whale is a thought-provoking, challenging experience that furthers his bold cinematic exploration of belief. His wild thematic swings have often proved divisive with movie-goers, and I suspect this’ll be no different, but a formidable turn from the beloved Brendan Fraser might be enough to win some audiences over.