The Whale movie review: Darren Aronofsky’s shouty melodrama is both flabby and paper thin

The Whale movie review: Darren Aronofsky’s shouty melodrama is both flabby and paper thin

Uh-oh. Even an on-form Brendan Fraser can’t redeem this stagey melodrama, which gorges on cliches and the state-of-the-art ‘fat suit’ Fraser wears throughout. His performance as Charlie, a gay, morbidly obese professor with a Christ-complex, won the 53-year-old actor a six-minute standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival and is virtually guaranteed a Best Actor nomination at the 2023 Oscar. Academy Voters love a bit of latex and Fraser’s a real-life underdog. What a shame the film stinks to high heaven.

The film – dedicated to director Darren Aronofsky’s parents, Abe and Charlotte (who used to be teachers) – is undeniably liberal in its agenda. It’s anti-homophobia. It’s anti-fat shaming. The director’s heart is in the right place. It’s where he puts the camera that’s the problem. Let’s put aside the question of whether a genuinely obese actor should have been cast in the lead. The real sin is that Aronofsky only has eyes for Charlie’s flesh and completely fails to notice that Charlie, like all the characters in this movie, is paper thin.

The premise of Samuel D Hunter’s screenplay (adapted from his own 2013 play) is fine. A house-bound Idaho English teacher is leading a double life. When talking to his online students, Charlie is wise, mellifluous and invisible (he keeps his webcam off). When the Zooms are over, he crams chocolate and pizza into his mouth and masturbates to porn.

Ecstasy, for this man, is always accompanied by agony. Charlie’s ’little death’ brings on an almost fatal heart attack and only the appearance of an evangelical, apparently innocent teen, Thomas (Ty Simpkins), averts the crisis.

Soon a no-nonsense nurse, Liz (Hong Chau), arrives. The sister of Charlie’s dead boyfriend, Alan, Liz was raised in a religious cult, but it’s clear she’s frustrated by our hero’s need to suffer. She jokes she’d like to stab him and, with a giggle, he says even a two-foot knife wouldn’t reach his internal organs. It’s a giggle for the ages – impish and blithe. And it makes Charlie’s whole face glow. Wow, you think, getting to know this man will be fascinating.

Wrong! With the appearance of Charlie’s estranged daughter, Ellie (Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink), the mood turns shouty. When Ellie’s mother, Mary (Samantha Morton) barges into Charlie’s home, things get shoutier still. But it would be an understatement to say that Aronofsky fails to distract us from the weak dialogue. He has Morton dash round the kitchen, arms flapping. Morton is one of Britain’s best actresses. Age 45, she should have a mantlepiece teeming with Oscars. What she’s required to do in The Whale is more likely to earn her a Golden Raspberry.

There are more histrionic revelations to come, mostly concerning Ellie, Thomas and Alan, plus endless discussions about Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and the terrain a ‘good’ essay about that novel should cover (throughout these conversations, Fraser widens his eyes and wiggles his eyebrows. I don’t think that constitutes acting, but no one could accuse Fraser of not trying and it’s not his fault that the result is... trying).

The last act borrows heavily from Dead Poets Society and Lars Von Trier’s (far superior) Breaking the Waves. Screw Rules! Listen To Your Heart! Make Loopy Sacrifices On Behalf Of Loved Ones Because God Is Watching And He Appreciates That Kind Of Thing!

Aronofsky has long been obsessed by religion and physical/emotional self-flagellation (see Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Black Swan, Noah and Mother!) Those films, however, were a visual riot.

If The Whale was a meal, it would be a stale and, yes, cheesy pizza. Slice this anyway you like, it belongs in the bin.

117mins

The Whale is screening at the BFI London Film Festival on October 11, 12 and 14, and will be released in the UK at a later date