The decidedly hard-to-watch The Whale begins with an essay on Herman Melville’s Moby Dick being read aloud to a morbidly obese English teacher, Charlie (Brendan Fraser), who seems to be having a heart attack. Incidentally, the full title of Melville’s 1851 novel is Moby Dick; or, The Whale. Charlie asks Thomas, (Ty Simpkins) a proselytising missionary who comes upon Charlie in the middle of his attack, to read the essay out loud to him.
The essay speaks sympathetically of the whale as being just a huge, dumb animal, and Ahab (the sailor hunting Moby Dick) for believing his life will become better if he is able to kill the whale. The essay also talks of the so-called boring bits which is just about whales, but posits the theory that the author is using those bits to camouflage his sad life for a while.
There have been many learned treatises on Moby Dick and as many adaptations, including the one about the mean white shark troubling the good people of Amity Island. Yes, Jaws was about a shark, but it definitely counts old Moby as its forebear.
It is difficult to ignore Melville’s great American novel in Darren Aronofsky’s latest film as it is thrown at our faces so many times. Adapted by Samuel D. Hunter from his eponymous 2012 play, The Whale is set in Charlie’s apartment as he seems determined to eat his way to an early death, much to the dismay of Liz (Hong Chau), his nurse and friend.
Though suffering from high blood pressure and congestive heart disease, Charlie refuses to go to hospital as he does not have medical insurance. He teaches English online with the camera off. Charlie wishes a rapprochement with his 17-year-old daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), who he abandoned nine years ago.
There are no easy answers in The Whale, which is unrelenting in its gaze at the pettiness that makes us human. Ellie is angry and lashes out at everyone as a way to assuage her hurt for Charlie’s abandonment. She is the whirling dervish to Charlie’s still centre. Charlie tries to bury his grief of losing his lover in a suicidal hunger. Thomas on the surface seems to have found the answers in Jesus, but obviously has not fully comprehended Christ’s message of unconditional love.
The maudlin, over-cooked tale is magnificently rescued by the acting. While Fraser, creates a sympathetic living portrait of Charlie — where you can see the man beneath the prosthetics — that the camera leers at constantly, Chau quietly shines as Liz. Sink has the easiest role and maxes it, while Samantha Morton is riveting as always as Mary, Ellie’s mum and Charlie’s ex-wife.
While what The Whale seems to be saying is ambiguously troubling, the performances make the movie worth plunging into.
The Whale is currently running in theatres