The Whale (2022)

Quick synopsis: Charlie, a reclusive obese English teacher wants to reconnect with his teenage daughter for a last chance at redemption.

There have been some negative reactions to this film, so I’ll address them first. The portrayal of an obese character has caused some issues, with some describing it as dehumanising. The director, Darren Aronofsky has defended his work, saying that when obese characters are portrayed in media, it’s normally as a joke. We’re encouraged to laugh at them, to mock them. I’ll give him credit, this doesn’t do that. We’re not supposed to laugh at Brendan Fraser’s character, which is a nice change. The trouble is, instead of laughing, it does kind of feel like the film wants us to be utterly disgusted by him instead. Is revulsion better than laughter? Maybe it just wasn’t the right film for Aronofsky to make, he has a habit of making things ugly, and for a film like this it is a bit uncomfortable. Especially when he plays music that’s akin to a horror soundtrack when Charlie stands up. He also makes sure to add lots of sound effects when he eats, making it seem as gross an act as possible. It may be eye-opening towards the subtle abuse that people go through, but it sure as hell is not shown through a sympathetic lens.

It’s a shame about the tone as otherwise, it is a fine movie. The performances are great all the way through. Fraser has been getting a lot of plaudits, and rightfully so, his performance is heartbreaking. He gives the character so much sadness and despair just with everyday life. Sadie Sink is an odd case as I’m not sure whether her performance was inconsistent, or her character was. Still, she’s a teenager so inconsistency is to be expected. The best part of Sadie Sink is her physical resemblance to the actress who plays her mother. Throughout I thought the mother would go unseen, but there was a small part of me thinking “this girl looks a lot like Samantha Morton”. So the fact that Morton then appears as the mother is something I certainly appreciated, although I can never get past how much she looks like one of my friends.

Personally, I think Hong Chau is the real star of the show, mainly because she’s the only character who seems real. Everybody else feels slightly overwritten and like characters in a film. Her character is played off completely straight, with no stereotypical manners or behaviour. She’s the smallest physical presence but has the largest screen presence. The discrepancy between her performance and the quality of the film is nowhere near as big as it was in Downsizing, and I hope she now gets the attention she deserves.

Here’s the thing, I know this is a good film. I know everybody involved is brilliant and is hard to criticise. But it’s just such a difficult film to actually enjoy. And the characters are so cruel to each other at times that it’s hard to take much enjoyment in the darkness. It’s just not something I will ever want to watch again. If it resented its main character less then it would be more tolerable, as it is, it’s the equivalent of a 20-minute prog rock song that lacks a killer hook. The hook/fish/whale thing was inadvertent, but f*ck it, make your own joke involving it.


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