"a static diorama of pain"

The Whale

The Whale (Darren Aronofsky, 2022) wr. Samuel D Hunter, play and film; Brendan Fraser, Hong Chow, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton

I didn't know this was based on a play until I read the credits. I had a growing sense of uncinematicity as the film drew on, and finally realised why: it is still a play, just recorded on film. It's not just that every actor has to enter through the same door; it's also that their performances are a bit too stagy. Despite some effective closeups, I felt, as soon as it was over, disconnected, and ready to head to the bar to discuss a well-made play with friends, as you do in the theatre. There are a couple of flashbacks, and a cinematic fantasy ending, but they don't affect the overall feeling of having sat in an auditorium looking at a single set, with actors making their entrances and exits.

Also contributing to the artificiality is the way the subplot (the prodigal missionary guy) exists to throw a different light on the central character's dilemma and also to provide an (implausible) change in the central plot. And there's also an ethnic pizza guy to provide a bit more racial diversity.

A further negative about this script is a bit more personal (due to my background as a teacher). Charlie is a teacher of literature, but what he wants his students (and his daughter) to write is something that is truthful to them, even if it has little or nothing to do with literature. Also, he has a limited vocabulary. He uses the word 'amazing' (even though he should know it is meaningless) at least a dozen times, more than half-a-dozen of those in one speech. It sounds to me like it's the writer, Hunter, who is 'amazed' (as in lost in a maze).

After all that, I should conclude with some positives. Fraser's acting is extraordinarily good, and he will deserve his Oscar. So is Hong Chow's and I hope that Jamie Lee Curtis will not beat her to the award out of respect for the longevity of her legs career.

Read the review by Richard Lawson in Vanity Fair: he's a better reviewer than I am. When he writes, 'the movie shouts it at us', I believe he is referring to the same 'stage' presentation as me. Cinema insinuates; a play shouts.

Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported an approval rating of 66% based on 316 reviews, with an average rating of 6.6/10. The site's critics consensus reads, "Held together by a killer Brendan Fraser, The Whale sings a song of empathy that will leave most viewers blubbering". Metacritic, which uses a weighted average, assigned the film a score of 60 out of 100, based on 55 critics, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
The Whale received positive feedback at the Toronto International Film Festival, with particular praise for Fraser's, Chau's and Sink's performances. When the film had a limited theatrical release, Variety reported that the reviews "have been polarizing, with others [than Variety's review] criticizing the film's portrayal of fat people". Glenn Kenny of RogerEbert.com praised Aronofsky's direction and Fraser's performance, writing that the "story is one of different levels of heartbreak and human misunderstanding" and "Aronofsky and Fraser have taken substantive risks, in the name of an insistent empathy". Robbie Collin of The Telegraph, gave it a perfect five stars, writing: "Fraser seals his comeback in a sensational film of rare compassion."
Richard Roeper of Chicago Sun-Times described the film as "empathetic, haunting, beautiful, heartbreakingly moving story of a broken man..." He named it best film of the year and deemed Fraser's performance as his career's best. Variety chief film critic Owen Gleiberman also praised Fraser, calling him "slyer, subtler, more haunting than he has ever been." Matthew Creith of Out Front wrote: "The highlight of The Whale comes from an outstanding turn from Hong Chau, who gives a memorable performance in a vital role that balances Charlie's outlandish behavior." Hannah Strong of Little White Lies praised Fraser and the "strong ensemble", highlighting Sink's "tricky role" in which she "captures the anger and sadness that comes from parental abandonment", and stating that while Aronofsky "isn't a particularly empathetic filmmaker" and The Whale is not without flaws, the film "reflects tenderly on shame, guilt, and the human impulse to care and be cared for".
Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair wrote that the film "meant to be a poignant consideration of guilt, sexuality, religion, remorse" but "we really only know that because the movie shouts it at us". He also criticized Fraser's performance as "lost". Mark Hanson of Slant Magazine felt that Aronofsky reins in his "typically ostentatious style" but "considering how Libatique's camera leeringly treats Charlie as an unsightly object of pity throughout, it's difficult to deny the film's fatphobia, though its mawkishness is no less oppressive". Katie Rife of Polygon wrote: "If you look at The Whale as a fable, its moral is that it's the responsibility of the abused to love and forgive their abusers. The movie thinks it's saying 'You don't understand; he's fat because he's suffering.' But it ends up saying 'You don't understand; we have to be cruel to fat people because we are suffering.' Aronofsky and Hunter's biblical metaphor aside, fat people didn't volunteer to serve as repositories for society's rage and contempt."

References and Links

Brown, David Michael 2023, 'Brendan Fraser’s journey from stoner comedy king to Oscar frontrunner', flicks.com.au, 31 January.

Buckmaster, Luke 2023, 'The Whale is getting harpooned by critics – so we review 14 wildly wrong reviews", flicks.com.au, 3 February.

Wikipedia page.

IMDb page.

Garry Gillard | reviews | New: 3 February, 2023 | Now: 16 March, 2023