As a journalist, I work a lot with words. It’s literally my job to find the right word, phrase, and syntax to try and articulate how drama movies like The Whale make me feel, to try and pass an objective judgement and critique on it.
Yet, as I sit here staring at the screen, my throat still hoarse and my head still pounding from sobbing in the cinema, I’ve realised just how hard it is to encapsulate a film like The Whale into words. But I’ll try my best.
The Whale is adapted from a 2012 play of the same name by thriller movie director Darren Aronofsky. It centres around the final days of Charlie (Brendan Fraser), an online professor who tries desperately to reconnect with his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) while also grappling with the physical impact of his binge eating disorder, which he developed after the tragic death of his partner.
When it comes to adapting plays from stage to screen, there are endless possibilities in terms of setting, space, and filming on location. Yet, Aronofsky chose to stay true to the source material in this regard by restricting the film almost entirely to Charlie’s apartment.
The apartment itself isn’t that small, with multiple rooms and a sprawling living space, but with Charlie’s life being almost entirely confined to his front room, the walls feel all the more oppressive; his life all the more lonely; while also allowing us to feel a level of intimacy with the character we probably wouldn’t have experienced if he ventured out beyond those four walls.
People from Charlie’s life come and go, but he has to live with himself every minute of the day, meaning that the audience sees him at his best, his worst, and everything in between. Aronofsky shows us every moment of the bleak, empty, repetitive existence of Charlie (he orders the same food to the point the takeout guy knows him, for example).
Still, at points, it is hard to tell whether the director loves or hates the character. When he engages in binge eating, for example, Aronofsky goes to great lengths to treat his subject with contempt and almost urges us to view him as grotesque: from the dramatic music that starts pulsating whenever Charlie starts to eat, to the crumbs on his shirt and his vomiting into trashcans.
It is at these moments the film verges into a body horror movie. While I understand the point of these scenes — we’re meant to be suitably horrified that Charlie is doing this to himself — it’s important to consider where the line between a painfully-candid approach and trauma porn is: and sometimes I felt concerned Aronofsky has crossed it.
That being said, Charlie is far from a one-dimensional character. He’s sardonic, he’s funny, he’s deeply intelligent and passionate about literature, but above all, he’s gentle. Fraser truly takes us through every possible emotion in this day-by-day account of Charlie’s life, and while his personal flaws and mistakes are never in doubt, neither is the sheer love and compassion he has for other people: especially his teenage daughter, Ellie.
While every one of Charlie’s vulnerabilities is laid brutally bare for the audience to see, Sink makes it, so Ellie is more difficult to work out. She says and does horrible things numerous times throughout the film and clearly has a lot of contempt for her father, but we also see what Charlie sees: glimmers of sensitivity and kindness, which suggest that, fundamentally, she’s a good person.
On the surface, Charlie looks like someone who has quite literally given up. It becomes apparent throughout the film that he became the way he was and resolved to give up on life after the man he left his wife and then-8-year-old daughter, Ellie, for ended his own life.
Yet, he never seems to give up on inspiring his students from the online college; constantly encouraging them to write from the heart, and no matter how heinous Ellie acts both in the past and present of the movie — with her own mother confessing that she thinks her daughter is evil — Charlie never gives up on the idea that she’s a good person and can have a good life.
Equally, in their own ways, passionate missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins) and steely Liz (Hong Chau)— Charlie’s carer and best friend— also show resilience by continuing to show up for Charlie. Their goals differ, with Thomas’ motivation ultimately proving to be misguided, but Liz especially is a compelling character because while she has, in some ways, given up on the idea she can ‘save’ Charlie from his inevitable fate, she never deserts him. Despite being a movie that centres around a dying man who is determined not to prolong his own life, The Whale is also full to the brim with resilience, hope, and love.
All members of the supporting cast are incredibly strong, but it’s the performances of Fraser and Sink, both independently and in scenes they share, that help this film transcend into something that isn’t just watched but truly felt with every fibre of your being.
There are countless devastating moments in the film that will leave your heart heavy, but it is The Whale’s final scene that will leave it etched in that heart long after you leave the cinema. Every thread, motif, conversation, and emotion from the film all tie together seamlessly in a scene that is both performed and directed in a way that makes it truly exceptional.
It’s emotionally draining, difficult to watch at times and probably not something you’d want to see again in a hurry — but The Whale is the most painfully beautiful movie I’ve ever seen. For more on this, check out our list of the best Brendan Fraser movies.
The Whale review
Brendan Fraser and Sadie Sink deserve all the awards.