Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is rapidly approaching the end of his life. Since the death of his partner, Adam, he has allowed his health to decline. Inanimate, a binge eater and a housebound recluse, he now weighs in at over 600 pounds and, as his friend, Liz (Hong Chau), repeatedly tells him, if he doesn’t get himself to a hospital he will, inevitably, suffer a massive heart attack. But Charlie has no health insurance and insists on working at every opportunity, teaching English Literature online – though he pretends that the camera on his computer is broken so his students cannot see him.
But Charlie still has one burning ambition, – to reconnect with his estranged daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), whom he abandoned when she was eight years old. It’s not going to be easy, because she is hostile to his approaches, blaming him for the fact that her mother, Mary (Samantha Morton), is a heavy drinker and still very much a loner. Into this scenario wanders Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a young missionary, seeking to give Charlie some spiritual help – but mostly looking for his own salvation.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky with a screenplay by Samuel D Hunter (based on his stage play), The Whale was filmed during lockdown, and (very fittingly) feels trapped by its stage origins, confining itself almost completely to Charlie’s dark and claustrophobic apartment. It’s been accused by some as an exercise in fat-shaming, though this seems unfair: Charlie is an engaging and complex character, dealing with grief and addiction. Fraser wears convincing prosthetics, created by a whole team of artists, which serve to illuminate the almost cartoonish grotesquery of his size, while still making us empathise with his plight.
There’s no doubting the power of Fraser’s Oscar-nominated performance in the central role, fuelled to some degree, I think, by his own punishing experiences in the movie industry. In fact, all of the performances here are skilled, particularly Sink’s incandescent turn as an anger-fuelled teenager, determined to exact her revenge on just about everyone she encounters. The scene where Charlie has to offer to pay her to visit him is particularly tragic.
If I’m honest, I think there are better, more nuanced films in this year’s Oscar contenders, but I won’t be at all surprised if Fraser gets the nod for best actor. His performance here is exemplary, and The Whale is a powerful and affecting drama.