Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins, Hong Chau, Samantha Morton, Sathya Sridharan
Running Time: 1 hr 56 mins
It is not uncommon for critics to worry that a film looks too much like a theater piece. Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin and Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, current nominees for best picture at the Oscars, have had that accusation gently levered in their direction. They can take it.
That nagging whiff is, however, impossible to shake off throughout Darren Aronofsky’s largely dreadful translation (can we allow even that noun?) of Samuel D Hunter’s play about a bereaved English teacher eating himself to death.
Never mind that the action barely escapes one room. You could say the same of a dozen cinematic classics. The worry is that the film deals in the worst, most jaded conventions of bourgeois middlebrow dinner theater from the 1950s. In moments of introspection, characters actually walk “downstage” to puzzle at an imagined dress circle. When they go out to the porch, one can imagine the lights dimming on the main set and coming up on a hitherto unnoticed bit of carpentry abutting the wings. No sooner have we settled back down after our gin and tonic at the interval than a new character is announcing the beginning of act two by knocking at the front door. Will it be Lady Peggy Ashcroft? No, it’s Samantha Morton.
None of this hokey stagecraft would much matter if the script were not draped in such mawkish sentiment and such cheap gotcha reveals. Yet the thing does begin well enough. We first hear Brendan Fraser’s mellifluous voice as Charlie, reclusive academic, addresses a class of students in an online seminar with his webcam off. (First produced in 2012, the play proves accidentally appropriate for a post-lockdown era.) They are not aware of what we soon learn. Now weighing in at 43 stone, Charlie has eaten himself into a state of terminally ill immobility. Initially, a stroppy nurse, played with Oscar-nominated vim by Hong Chau, proves his only source of human contact, but, this being a drama mired in mid-century theatrical convention, we know others will soon come calling. Sadie Sink easily masters a one-note strop as his estranged daughter. Ty Simpkins is almost defeated by the absurd role of a visiting Christian missionary just yearning to spice up the closing action with conveniently appropriate secrets of his own.
If you thought no writer dealing with such material would dare hang Charlie’s teaching around something so on-the-nose as Moby Dick then I have not yet conveyed quite how cacophonous are the machine’s clunks. Every now and then we do get a moment of properly cinematic unease, but even those successes are tainted by the film’s unseemly disgust at Charlie’s body. Ranking up the droning minor chords on Rob Simonsen’s orchestral score as the protagonist tucks into another pizza succeeds in making something mortally sinister of an everyday act. Yet that only heightens the sense that The Whale – alert to every crease of Fraser’s simulated fat – is dealing in incongruously maudlin body horror. Cronenberg for saps. Or do we just mean Aronofsky for saps? The director of shockers such as Requiem for a Dream and Mother! has had his mainstream moments, but he has never before been quite so at home to tawdry soap opera.
[ The layer of silicone that could settle the next best-actor Oscars ]
Ever since the premiere at Venice, Fraser’s performance has been touted as the film’s saving grace. After a few years in the near wilderness, the sometime matinee idol does indeed bring gentle desperation to dialogue that demands to be spoken with heart thumping on sleeve. His pleading is not just to the characters around him but to a wider audience largely on the actor’s side. Sadly, not even someone so warm as Fraser can win us over to the most jaw-droppingly daft final shot in recent cinema. I have been fanning my armpits ever since a first viewing.
The Whale is in cinemas from Friday, February 3rd