director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins, Hong Chow, Samantha Morton, Sathya Sridaran
Running Time:: 1 hour 56 minutes
It’s not uncommon for critics to worry that a film is too theatrical. Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inishrein and Sarah Polley’s Women Speak, the current Oscar contenders for best picture, have had that charge leveled gently at them. They can take it.
That haunting smell, however, is impossible to come by in Darren Aronofsky’s largely terrifying translation (can we even allow that noun?) of Samuel D Hunter’s play about a grieving English teacher who eats herself to death.
Never mind that the action barely escapes from one room. The same can be said for dozens of movie classics. The concern is that the film represents the worst, most difficult conventions of the bourgeois medieval dinner theater of the 1950s. In moments of introspection, the characters actually walk “down” to puzzle out an imaginary dress frame. As they step out onto the porch, one can imagine the lights dimming on the main set and a hitherto inconspicuous piece of carpentry clinging to the wings. As soon as we catch up on that break after our gin and tonic, a new character heralds the start of act two by knocking on the front door. Would it be Dame Peggy Ashcroft? No, it’s Samantha Morton.
None of these hokey stunts would have mattered much if the script hadn’t been laced with such harsh sentiments and such cheap revelations. Things start off well enough, though. We first hear Brendan Fraser’s unruffled voice as Charlie, a reclusive academic, addresses a class of students in an online seminar with his webcam off. (First released in 2012, the play happens to be relevant to the post-lockdown era.) They are unaware of what we soon learn. Now weighing 43 stone, Charlie has eaten himself into a terminally ill immobility. At first, a strophic nurse played by Oscar nominee Hong Chow proves her only source of human contact, but since this is a drama mired in mid-century theatrical convention, we know others will soon be calling. Sadie Sink easily masters a one-note line as his estranged daughter. Ty Simpkins is almost undone by the absurd role of a visiting Christian missionary who just wants to spice up the closing action with his convenient secrets.
If you thought that no writer who deals with such material would dare to hang the teachings of Charlie around something as nonsensical as Moby-Dick, then I have not yet told you how ridiculous car cranks are. Every now and then we get a moment of proper cinematic angst, but even those successes are tainted by the film’s inappropriate disdain for Charlie’s body. Rob Simonsen’s classy orchestral score, as the protagonist tucks into another pizza, manages to make something deadly sinister out of the mundane. However, that only heightens the sense that The Whale, wary of every crease of Frasier’s simulated fat, is dealing with an incongruous body horror. Kronenberg for juices. Or do we just mean Aronofsky for the juices? Directed shockers like Requiem for a Dream and Mother. he’s had his major moments, but he’s never been so at home with dark soap operas before.
[ The layer of silicone that could settle the next best-actor Oscars ]
Since its Venice premiere, Fraser’s performance has been considered the film’s saving grace. After a few years in the middle of nowhere, the one-time matinee idol really brings a gentle desperation to the dialogue, which calls for heart-to-heart talk. His plea is not only to the characters around him, but to the wider audience, mostly from the actor. Unfortunately, even someone as warm as Frasier can’t win us over in the most ridiculous final shot of recent cinema. I’ve been cooling my armpits since the first viewing.
The Whale is in cinemas from Friday 3rd February