It stars Brendan Fraser in an Oscar-nominated performance. But this film’s a shocker – The Irish Times


Director: Darren Aronofsky

Cert: 16

Starring: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins, Hong Chau, Samantha Morton, Sathya Sridharan

Running Time: 1 hour 56 mins

It’s no wonder critics worry that the film looks too much like a period piece. Martin McDonagh’s The Banshees of Inisherin and Sarah Polley’s Women Talking, currently nominated for best picture at the Oscars, were mildly accused of the crime. They can take it.

This haunting atmosphere, however, is impossible to shake in Darren Aronofsky’s terrifying adaptation (can we even allow that name?) of Samuel D Hunter’s drama about a bereaved English teacher who eats himself to death.

Don’t even think that the event doesn’t just escape from one room. You can say the same about a dozen cinematic classics. The problem is that the movie deals in the worst, most jaded conventions of bourgeois middlebrow dinner theater from the 1950s. During imagination, the players actually walk “down” to think on an imaginary circle. As they step out onto the porch, one can imagine the lights going out on the main floor and rising up to a never-before-seen piece of woodwork covering the wings. No sooner have we settled back after our gin and tonic than someone new is announcing the start of the second act by knocking on the front door. Will it be Dame Peggy Ashcroft? No, it’s Samantha Morton.

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None of this hokey stagecraft would matter much if the script wasn’t mired in mawkish sentiment and cheap gotcha displays. But it’s a perfect start. We first hear Brendan Fraser’s mysterious voice as Charlie, a regular student, talking to a class of students in an online seminar with his webcam turned off. (Originally published in 2012, the show coincidentally shows the right time for the post-closure period.) They don’t know what we learn in a short time. Now weighing 43 stone, Charlie ate himself into an incredibly unhealthy state. At first, the powerful nurse, played by Oscar-nominated vim and Hong Chau, shows her only where she meets people, but, this being a game steeped in a century of convention games, we know that others will soon come calling. Sadie Sink is easily one-note as her estranged daughter. Ty Simpkins is overwhelmed by the mysterious mission of a visiting Christian missionary who is only eager to direct the closing scene with his own well-deserved secrets.

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If you thought that no writer who deals with such things would want to attach Charlie’s theory to something on the nose like Moby Dick then I haven’t really revealed how cacophonous the cookie machine is. Every now and then we get a moment of cinematic unease, but even those successes are marred by the film’s unrelenting disgust at Charlie’s body. Putting small scores on Rob Simonsen’s orchestral score as the protagonist tucks into some pizza succeeds in creating something deadly out of an everyday experience. But that only adds to the sense that The Whale – a warning to every fat Fraser that compares – is dealing with an incongruously maudlin body horror. Cronenberg for saps. Or do we just mean Aronofsky to the saps? The director of horror films like Requiem for a Dream and Mother! he’s had his usual moments, but he’s never been so at home on a tawdry soap opera.

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Since its debut in Venice, Fraser’s performance has been hailed as the film’s saving grace. After a few years in the near wilderness, sometimes a real matinee doll brings a gentle desperation to a heart-pounding conversation. His appeal is not only to the actors around him but to a wider audience on the actor’s side. Sadly, no one as warm as Fraser can beat us to the most drop-dead daft final shot in recent cinema. I’ve been wringing my hands since I first saw it.

The Whale is in cinemas from Friday, February 3


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