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  • Writer's pictureGareth Bradwick

The Whale ★★★★

Darren Aronofsky

Starring Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton

Anyone who has worked from home in the last few years will recognise the opening few moments of The Whale, as the voice of Charlie (Brendan Frasier), is the only thing his students know of the virtual English teacher. The webcam is turned off, but the audience get to see how severe obesity has taken its toll on Charlie’s mental health, his relationships and his body.

This is a desperately sad story. Even the lighter moments have a melancholy to them that bring you back to how entangled Charlie has become in his own lifestyle. That being said, the dynamic between characters is enthralling, while Charlie’s own turmoil is so recognisable that there are moments throughout that will resonate with anyone who battles their inner demons.

The film itself is played out completely within Charlie’s apartment; a dingy, brown, cluttered space on the top floor of a drive-in motel looking block. Having everything set within the same space works perfectly for the story. We live with Charlie in that time, with characters coming in and out of his life without him having to move (some of the characters we don’t even get to see, but they make their presence known). The relationship he has with his friend, Liz (Hong Chau) provides the most fascinating dynamic though and is tough to watch. The ensemble cast are a patchwork that drip feed the audience clues as to how Charlie got where he is when we meet him. It’s that dynamic that is difficult to watch but hard to turn away from.

Liz is played superbly by Chau however, Brendan Fraser is naturally the main focus here and is perfect for this role. The entire western world have a soft spot for Fraser which gives us a buy in for Charlie from the get-go. This is a career defining performance that’s treated with sensitivity, grace and power. It is comfortably one of the best performances of the decade so far.

Where The Whale falters slightly is in the relationship between Charlie and his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) and then between Ellie and evangelical Thomas (Ty Simpkins). Though well intentioned, the drama here feels forced when there is so much going on already. It feels a distraction in what is otherwise a tight story.

Usually I would recommend a light watch after something like this. However, on this occasion I feel The Whale is asking you to pause and reflect. It’s an imperfect story for our times that deserves to be talked about as soon as you leave the cinema, or maybe on the walk home, or maybe on that Zoom call at work. Camera optional.

The Whale available in UK cinemas from 3rd February 2023

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