The Whale: It stars Brendan Fraser in an Academy Award-nominated performance. But this movie is shocking

Whale

Director: Darren Aronofsky

cert: 16

championship: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Tai Simpkins, Hong Chau, Samantha Morton, Satya Sridharan

jogging time: 1 hour 56 minutes

It’s not uncommon for critics to worry that a movie looks too much like a theatrical piece. Martin McDonough’s The Banshees of Inisherin’ and Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, current Best Picture nominees at the Academy Awards, gently tip the accusation in their own direction. They can take it.

Still, it’s impossible to get rid of that nagging whiff of Darren Aronofsky’s largely apocalyptic translation (can we even allow that name?) of Samuel D. Hunter’s play about a bereaved English teacher who eats himself to death.

It doesn’t matter that work barely escapes one room. You can say the same about dozens of cinematic classics. The concern is that the film deals in the worst and most ramshackle tradition of mean bourgeois dinner theater from the 1950s. In moments of introspection, the characters actually walk “downstage” to solve the mystery at an imagined dress-up circle. When they come out onto the balcony one can imagine the lights dimming on the main group and ascending on an hitherto unremarkable piece of joinery abutting the wings. No sooner had we settled back into the interval after our gin and tonic than a new character announced the beginning of Act Two by knocking on the front door. Will it be Mrs. Peggy Ashcroft? No, it’s Samantha Morton.

None of this sitcom would matter much if the script weren’t wrapped in unsettling sentiment and such cheap grab-and-go revelations. However, the thing starts off well enough. We first hear Brendan Fraser’s sweet voice as Charlie, a reclusive academic, addresses a class of students at a webinar without his webcam. (First produced in 2012, the play accidentally proved appropriate for the post-lockdown era.) They are not aware of what we soon learn. He now weighs 43 stone, and Charlie has eaten himself in an immobile state. In the beginning, Dirty Nurse, played with an Oscar-nominated vim by Hong Chau, proves his only source of human contact, but this drama is so steeped in mid-century theater convention we know others are coming soon. Sadie Sink easily masters one move as his estranged daughter. T. Simpkins is almost defeated by the absurd role of a visiting Christian missionary who is just eager to spice up the closing event with his own secrets.

If you think any writer dealing with such material would dare suspend Teaching Charlie about something like Moby Dick, I have not yet conveyed how dissonant the machine sounds. Every now and then we get a moment of proper cinematic unease, but even those successes are tinged with the film’s inappropriate disgust at Charlie’s body. A slight string arrangement in Rob Simonsen’s orchestral performance succeeds as the hero in another pizzeria makes something sinister out of an everyday work. However, this only serves to heighten the sense that Whale – who sniffs every wrinkle of simulated fat from Fraser – deals inappropriately with body horror. Cronenberg Sap. Or do we just mean Aronofsky for the sap? Trauma manager like Requiem and Mother’s Dream! He had his mainstream moments, but he was never quite at home for a TV series.

Since its premiere in Venice, Fraser’s performance has been described as the film’s saving grace. After a few years in the near wilderness, the sometime idol already brings a sweet desperation to dialogue that requires speaking with a heart beating on the sleeve. His pleas are not only to the characters around him but to a vastly wider audience on the part of the actor. Sadly, not even someone as warm as Fraser can win us over to the most amazing final shot in modern cinema. I’ve been fanning my armpits since the first viewing.

The Whale is in cinemas starting Friday, February 3

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