The Whale: Brendan Fraser seals his comeback in a sensational film of rare compassion

Brendan Fraser as the morbidly obese Charlie - A24
Brendan Fraser as the morbidly obese Charlie - A24

You’ve thrilled to the McConaissance; rejoiced in the ReHughvination (Grant, that is, not Bonneville or Jackman). But has the moment now arrived for the Turn of Frase? There hasn’t been a new Brendan Fraser vehicle in British cinemas for more than a decade, but his latest will surely prove to be this year’s greatest, most surprising comeback.

The film is Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale: an adaptation of a 2012 stage play by Samuel D Hunter, in which Charlie, a severely obese divorcee, tries to make peace with his estranged teenage daughter before he finally eats himself to death. And the 53-year-old Fraser – the former star of the Mummy franchise and George of the Jungle – plays Charlie, prosthetically filled out to 42 stone (the make-up is eerily seamless), wheezing and sofa-beached, with a thick, humpback’s tail of a sweat patch running up his back.

The premise, especially in concert with the casual cruelty of its title, makes The Whale sound like a freak show. But it’s actually something far rarer and more wonderful: a pungent yet compassionate parable about grace and salvation, told with truly Biblical force. As a filmmaker, Aronofsky has long been drawn to the scriptural – his two most recent films were his 2014 blockbuster take on the Noah story and his outlandish 2017 fall-of-Eden fable Mother! – and The Whale sits firmly in that tradition, with Fraser’s Charlie living in a state of Jonah-like entrapment in the dark belly of his cluttered apartment. The man has essentially been swallowed up by his own stomach – or rather, the compulsive eating disorder he developed after the death of his extra-marital boyfriend, and which is now about to claim his life.

Fraser’s casting is so moving in part because we can still recognise the beloved figure beneath the fleshy baggage – but also because his performance never courts pity. His Charlie is complex, flawed, funny and otherwise fully and radiantly human: a rounded character in more ways than one.

He’s cared for – though also kept topped up with junk food – by his late lover’s sister, an affectionate but plain-spoken nurse called Liz (a superb Hong Chau), who becomes one of four important visitors to his flat. Another is his teenage daughter Ellie (spikily played by Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink), and the third is Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a young missionary from an end-of-days Christian cult. The fourth, who appears in just one soul-scorching scene, is his ex-wife Mary, devastatingly played by Samantha Morton.

Those comings and goings are stagey by nature, with the various door-slamming arrivals and departures set to the rhythm of farce. But the nature of the story demands confinement – we were hardly going to see Charlie frolicking through meadows – while Aronofsky cunningly transforms the apartment’s muddled shelves and locked doors as a walk-through model of Charlie’s internal psychological state. A second literary whale soon comes to loom, too: the one from Moby-Dick, which features in a beloved essay Charlie, a creative writing teacher, always has close to hand, and which plays a pivotal role in the film’s transcendent final sequence.

The Whale builds slowly but surely towards that mad coup de grâce, which will either leave you cold or sweep you heavenward: for me, it was a quintessential Aronofsky flourish; as loopily sublime as the endings of The Wrestler and Black Swan. Who knew a film about the weakness of the flesh could be such balm for the soul?

In cinemas now