I can’t work out if Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, which stars Brendan Fraser as a man weighing 600lb – that’s 42 stone in real money – is ‘abhorrently cruel’, as some have said, or a film of ‘rare compassion’, as others have said. Either way, it is compelling, although whether that’s for the right reasons or wrong reasons, I also can’t work out. You certainly can’t take your eyes off Fraser, much as you’d sometimes wish to. Is this really sweet, klutzy ‘George, George, George of the Jungle (watch out for the tree!)’? After years in the wilderness, Fraser has now been nominated for an Oscar. So what we can agree on is that Aronofsky has done for him what, for example, Tarantino did for John Travolta.
Samuel D. Hunter adapted the script from his own play, and even if you didn’t know this, you’d work it out, as virtually every scene cries: ‘This was a play!’ Aronofsky is uninterested in the camera taking up more of the burden of storytelling. The characters are essentially boxed into the one room in Charlie’s crappy apartment. Charlie teaches English online and pretends his laptop camera is broken as he does not want his students to see him in the flesh. There is a lot of flesh. Charlie (Fraser, in prosthetics) is essentially constrained to the one chair as he can barely walk.
Hunter has said that he wants us to look beyond Charlie’s appearance to see ‘the deep, complex humanity of this very beautiful human being’. But if that is so, why does Aronofsky focus so relentlessly on the physical in a way that seems to invite revulsion? Why show Charlie naked in the shower? Why show him binge-eating until he vomits? One of our first views of Charlie involves him masturbating to porn and having a heart attack.