Darren Aronofsky is not a director who makes easy films. Whether drug addiction (Requiem for a Dream), terminal illness (The Fountain) or obsessive self-harm (The Wrestler, Black Swan), he tackles difficult subjects head on, presenting profound challenges to his audience – especially those of a sensitive disposition. And he does it brilliantly.
Despite being an adaptation of a play (by American playwright Samuel D Hunter) and set almost entirely in a single location, The Whale is no exception. In fact, it bears closest resemblance to 2008’s The Wrestler, though rather than suicidal pro wrestling, it’s extreme weight gain and social isolation that define its main character. He’s a grieving, apartment-bound college tutor named Charlie (Brendan Fraser), who’s desperate to reconnect with his alienated daughter before his ailing heart gives out.
Thanks to some astonishing prosthetic make-up work (by Canadian make-up artist Adrien Morot) that somehow makes the one-time George of the Jungle totally recognisable yet utterly transformed, The Whale serves up several distressing moments – not least the scenes where Charlie brutally gorges himself on, well, whatever food he can find.
Yet it is not the grim, voyeuristic grind it might have been. Charlie is neither an object of ridicule (as characters of his girth often are in Hollywoodland), nor the focus of disgust and derision. Aronofsky and Hunter (adapting his own work) ensure he’s compellingly textured and, for all his flaws, deeply likeable. Charlie has a surprising faith in the decency of human nature that belies his self-destructive compulsion.
It is hard to imagine anyone pulling this off better than Brendan Fraser
It is hard to imagine anyone pulling this off better than Fraser, whose eyes shimmer like welcoming beacons in each scene. He is ably supported by Stranger Things star Sadie Sink as his acidic offspring Ellie and, most impressively, Hong Chau as his shrewd carer and best friend Liz. But this engrossing chamber piece really belongs to him. It is, by far, his most impressive performance, both in terms of meeting its gruelling physical demands and in terms of embodying a complete human being, from sweat-drenched surface to shining soul.
Yes, he is at times hard to watch. But Fraser makes The Whale a deeply empathic and touching experience.
In US theaters Dec 9.