By Michael Yu, Jan. 24, 2023
“People are amazing,” utters Charlie (Brendan Fraser), a morbidly obese and isolated English professor in the last throes of life. This phrase serves as the backbone for the film, because while “The Whale” can be disturbing and haunting, it also presents a fundamentally human experience about the value of life.
Taking place over an eventful week, “The Whale” depicts Charlie’s struggle to reconnect with his estranged and brazen daughter Ellie, played by Sadie Sink, who he abandoned at a young age. Throughout this week, Charlie is visited by a myriad of characters such as his nurse Liz (Hong Chau) and Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a missionary.
The entire cast is acted to perfection, with every character bringing their own personal gravitas to the intense melodrama of the film. However, special commendations must be given to Fraser, who gives a remarkably beautiful performance while wearing a 300-pound fat suit.
It is this performance by Fraser that serves as the heart of the film. Constrained to his apartment and cut off from the world, it is harrowing seeing how Charlie struggles to complete even the most basic task. Eating through his trauma, the audience witnesses Charlie gorge on fried chicken buckets, meatball subs and chocolate bars as the film’s score crescendos, giving the scenes a feeling of horror as the audience watches this empathetic character slowly destroy himself.
Despite the revulsion of his situation, Charlie is the film’s most genuine character. He strives to see the good in everyone, no matter the situation. The film shows us that despite his grotesque appearance he is a human just like everyone else, and in some situations is even more human than most.
With Charlie — and by extension Fraser — serving as the heart of the film, Ellie is the film’s soul. Played expertly by Sink, she is able to perfectly convey the characters’ anger and resentment. The two characters show different ways of coping with trauma, with Charlie’s naivety clashing with Ellie’s anger.
This dynamic is the film’s strongest point. Seeing two powerhouse performances play off each other was engrossing. Their relationship, and the way it unfolds, is heartbreaking and brought me to tears numerous times.
The film takes place almost entirely in Charlie’s apartment, with only the occasional exterior shot providing a reprieve from the claustrophobia of the apartment. The apartment becomes its own character, akin to a rapidly sinking ship with Charlie’s whale stuck in its hull.
There is a grim atmosphere enveloping the entire film. The never-ending rain lends the film an almost apocalyptic feeling, as the audience waits for the allegorical flood. As the pattering of the rain and the sound of Charlie’s heavy breathing fill the empty corridors of the apartment, the audience is immersed in the story being told.
“The Whale” is shot in a way to make the audience uncomfortable. Numerous close ups and off kilter shots make the audience get up close and personal with Charlie. Every detail is visible, from the sweat drops on his brow to the tears welling up in his emotive eyes.
Before and up to the release of the film, controversy has surrounded the film around the decision to encase Fraser in a fat suit, with many claiming the film was fatphobic. However, the film’s focus is not meant to gawk at Charlie’s physical weight but rather emphasize the weight of guilt. It asks the audience to look past the physical and empathize with the characters, because in the end, “people are amazing.”
“The Whale” is a beautiful film. Stacked full of genuine and powerful performances, it is a truly emotional journey. It challenges the audience and asks them whether they see just the body or the man beneath it all.
“… and I felt saddest of all when I read the boring chapters that were only descriptions of whales, because I knew that the author was just trying to save us from his own sad story, just for a little while,” recites Ellie in “The Whale.”
Feature image courtesy of Lauren Wong
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