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The Whale (2022) Review

This is my review for the 2022 movie “The Whale”. This is a movie wrapped tightly in discourse and meta-narratives. It’s the comeback of beloved actor Brendan Fraser, whose story is tragic and we’re all happy to see him back. There are also arguments about whether the movie is fatphobic, with its treatment of obese characters. It’s difficult to review “The Whale” without being drawn into those narratives. So, I’m not going to try.

What is The Whale about?

The Whale is a movie set in a single apartment, following a week in the life of Charlie. Charlie has been through a lot, primarily due to his sexuality (he’s gay) and as a result, has turned to binge eating. On Monday, he has a heart attack and makes it clear he’s not going to seek help. His carer and friend, Liz, makes it clear many times that he won’t make it to the weekend.

Aware that he’s on borrowed time, Charlie attempts to reconnect with his daughter, Ellie. He left Ellie when she was young, as he split up with his wife to run away with his boyfriend. She resents him for this and does not want to reconnect, to the point where Charlie is left paying her to spend time with him. There’s also a religious character who keeps dropping in, in an attempt to convert Charlie and prove that his religion means something.

It’s definitely a character piece. Aronofsky wants us to understand the heartbreak that Charlie has felt and sympathise with him. It feels like it has good intentions – we are clearly meant to sympathise with Charlie’s character. Potentially even question some of the stereotypes we hold, personally, towards fat people.

However, these good intentions get lost along the way.

The Whale and treatment of fat people

There’s a lot of debate about whether a fat actor should’ve been hired to play this role rather than Fraser. That’s not an argument that I’m, personally, interested in – but it’s an interesting one.

As mentioned, the movie seems to be focused around humanizing Charlie. About proving that he’s still a great human, despite being obese. It doesn’t feel right, however, that the only way to achieve this is to completely destroy him as a person. Humanizing a character isn’t just watching them be tortured and pained. We could see a great, humanizing movie which was a comedy or a lighter drama. This type of movie to achieve that goal isn’t necessary.

But, you may say, that wasn’t the type of movie that the artist intended to make. That’s fine, but it’s important that we ask ourselves why that is. Is it a problem that we stereotype fat people as being depressed and miserable? Can you name three pieces of media where somebody as large as Charlie is humanized through positive emotions, rather than negative emotions? I can’t. It may be a stretch, but I compare it to what I know. For the longest time, a lot of queer media was focused around these sorts of pain stories. In a way, they still are. Movies where straight people get to shake their head and go, “wow, I didn’t realise how bad things were”. As things developed, we got queer romcoms; queer horror; etc. It’s these that humanized queer people, previously they were just a spectacle.

Portrayal of his body

Throughout the movie, it’s clear that we’re supposed to see Charlie’s body as disgusting. Most of the supporting cast (I believe everybody but Liz) says so and Charlie says it himself. At one point, Charlie reveals his body to his students – empathising his stomach area and legs. They react in a very over-the-top way and it’s all a bit strange. It’s clear that this movie doesn’t take a body positive approach.

Is Charlie good representation?

As a person, we’re supposed to think that Charlie is a good human being. He sees the best in people and his ex-wife recounts missing his optimism. Yet, I didn’t walk out of this movie thinking that. I thought Charlie was a terrible person.

Spoilers, but in the third act – we discover that not only has Charlie been sitting on a large amount of money, but that Liz didn’t know anything about this. How has this man been allowing his friend (the sister of his dead boyfriend) to struggle in looking after him, when he could’ve afforded to pay for professional help? Or, better yet, actually pay her?? I may have missed it, and am wrong, but it doesn’t seem like Charlie actually pays Liz. It’s presented as more of a friendship, but her responsibilities go beyond that. Charlie’s treatment of her is awful and the movie really doesn’t seem to understand that.

Hong Chau and her character, Liz, is the shining star of the movie.

At one point, it’s revealed that his daughter Ellie did a terrible thing. A terrible thing that resulted in a great outcome for another character. Yet, Charlie celebrates this – saying that he knew his daughter was a good person. While this isn’t a slight on Charlie’s morality, it does make you wonder if he’s really this naïve. In a way, it almost acts as a criticism for the idea of “seeing the best in people”.

The Brendanaissance

It’s hard to talk about this movie without talking about Brendan Fraser. After being a big star in the early 2000s, he disappeared. Only fairly recently did we learn why and it was not a good reflection on Hollywood. While I wasn’t the biggest fan of this film, it was great to see him back.

He’s been nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars for his performance here and it is deserved. He does a great job at capturing emotion and selling the clunky dialogue that he’s been given. While I don’t think this movie was for me, I can definitely see how his performance managed to sell others on it. He nailed this role and hopefully, we’ll see him in a lot more.

Also nominated at the Oscars is Hong Chau for her performance as Liz. I loved Chau in this movie, I thought she was phenomenal and again, really sold me on her character and the relationship between her and Charlie. I also thought that Sadie Sink put in a great performance, though was dealt a rough hand as her character was one of the more cartoonish.

Who should watch The Whale?

While I can’t personally say that I enjoyed this movie, I don’t regret watching it. It does feel like an important part of the cultural zeitgeist. I saw three movies at the cinema this weekend (all opening weekend for the UK), including the new Puss in Boots movie, and this was (by far) the busiest screening. Part of that will have been down to timings and whatnot and I doubt this movie will make much money, but it has super fans. It has a narrative that goes beyond the movie. I almost feel like I’d be missing out on important Twitter lore if I didn’t see this.

Equally, if you have any affinity towards Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau or even Sadie Sink – then you should see this movie. It’s a great showcase of their talents.

Did you enjoy The Whale more than I did? Let me know in the comments below!

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