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TIFF 2022 Review: The Whale – “An intimate and heartbreaking film”

Courtesy of TIFF

In an essay about Moby Dick, a writer describes the whale as a ‘large, emotionless animal.’  It’s a writing that when Charlie (Brendan Fraser) starts to feel the pains rising in his chest or the wheezing in his lungs worsening, he repeats to calm himself.  “The author was just trying to distract us from his own sad story,” he says aloud.  And indeed this is a reflection of his own life, for Charlie’s tale is sad, traumatic and full of grief.  To distract himself from this he eats – buckets of chicken, two pizzas at a time, meatball subs with extra cheese.  He has been self-medicating with food, slowly killing himself, and now at 600 lbs that fate is looming.

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His friend Liz (Hong Chau), is a nurse who helps Charlie at home, where he is essentially stuck on his second floor apartment.  He’s unable to walk without assistance.  He teaches online college courses, hidden behind a black box under the guise of a broken computer camera.  His only link to the outside is a little bird he feeds on his apartment’s window ledge – bonding to the small creature with food.  But now Liz tells him his blood pressure is 238/134; numbers which signify marked hypertension and congestive heart failure.  The end they both knew was coming has arrived, especially as Charlie refuses any hospital care.  With days to live, Charlie has one goal in mind, to reconcile with his teenaged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) whom he hasn’t seen for years.

Director Darren Aronofsky continues his cinematic trend of diving deep into people’s trauma and psychology. From Requiem for a Dream to The Wrestler, the director never shies away from the uncomfortable.  This may be never more true than in The Whale, adapted from the stage play by Samuel D. Hunter.  This is an intimate and heartbreaking film that takes place entirely within the four walls of Charlie’s apartment, and there is no need to alter this from the stage version.  Staying contained in this dark, dishevelled environment adds a layer of claustrophobia, a feeling of being trapped to an already complex and layered story.  We are Charlie, unable to move or find relief from the unkempt disorder around us.  It all works to amplify our discomfort, and also our empathy.

Now let’s talk Brendan Fraser, the comeback king this festival season who has garnered standing ovations in Venice as well as here in Toronto.  He also received the TIFF Tribute Award for Performance, just one of the first of many awards he is sure to win this year.  In fact, just start engraving Fraser’s Oscar now please.  There is a reason Aronofsky and A24 haven’t released a picture of Brendan Fraser in the complete prosthetics for The Whale.  It’s truly shocking.  An impactful and jaw-dropping moment, but it’s often rarely this that rivets you.  It’s what Fraser manages to do under the layers of make up and weight, that made him have to be wheeled to set (according to this Vanity Fair piece) that is the most spectacular.  This is an actor at his peak.  Where you go from here performance wise from (I suppose to Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Killers of the Flower Moon) is anyone’s guess.

Next on people’s minds on the festival circuit is Stranger Things star Sadie Sink.  Ellie is distinctly cruel, dealing it all right back to the father she feels abandoned her when she was eight and he left her mother (Samantha Morton in a particularly affecting scene).  She embodies Ellie perfectly.  But I feel it only fair to say that Hong Chau is my supporting hero.  Liz has many motivations for being in Charlie’s life which I won’t ruin here, but she distinctly wrestles with wanting to help Charlie and knowing that on some level she is enabling him.  She is superbly subtle when she needs to be, directly forceful when called to be, especially when a visiting missionary (Ty Simpkins) comes knocking at the door.  The Whale needs Hong Chau’s nuanced performance as much as it revels in Fraser’s.

Full disclosure, I have a propensity to love cinematic chamber pieces, especially when they are adapted from the stage.  Yet, with incredible performances and direction, I can find no fault in The Whale.  It’s an emotional roller coaster of a film that has the power to elicit the most powerful empathy towards this singular human being.  Despite everything Charlie has been through, his emotional eating, his grief, his daughter’s painful distrust, his complex feelings about his appearance and people’s reactions to him, he has this deeply rooted optimism.  “People are amazing,” he says, undeterred in his profound belief that humanity, at its core, is good.  The Whale it turns out, is never a large emotionless animal, it is a teacher of the most valuable kind.

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