Tough topics and top turns elevate the dark tale of ‘The Whale’

Sad sack: Brendan Fraser plays a grossly obese teacher in ‘The Whale’.

THE WHALE *** (117 minutes) M
A strong favourite to take out Best Actor at the upcoming Oscars, Brendan Fraser registers an affecting, moving portrayal as Charlie, the massively obese, love-starved loner at the centre of The Whale. It’s a sterling and brave performance that, at times, is nonetheless difficult to watch.

Confined to his flat and working as a teacher for an online college course (with the camera always off, of course), Charlie has his nurse Liz (Hong Chau, also up for Best Supporting Actress) concerned over his astronomical blood pressure reading that, along with his kamikaze diet, indicate that his heart is overdue for a final collapse.

Knowing that it will likely be only a few days before his clock permanently stops, Charlie strives to connect with his estranged, deeply resentful daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) who has never forgiven him for walking out on her and her mother (Samantha Morton) for the sake of a relationship with a male lover.

Most of the action occurs in Charlie’s untidy, under-lit apartment and director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan; Mother!; The Wrestler) does little to mask the film’s stage pedigree, being based on the 2012 play by screenwriter Samuel D Hunter.

Still, that’s no quibble thanks to the highly emotive performances he elicits from his extraordinary ensemble as they battle their way through a decidedly dark story of a beleaguered man in desperate search for one last glimmer of love before his lights flicker out.

The Whale tackles a clutch of tough topics – obesity; isolation; body shaming; betrayal; forgiveness – with sensitivity and a raw honesty that can sometimes be hard to take.

Underlying everything is the rather obvious fact that Charlie, while struggling through this difficulty chapter of his life, is slowly killing himself through over-eating.

Starkly illustrating his conflicted state of mind is the grotesque scene where he devours a couple of pizzas. It brings to mind Mr Creosote from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, only without the laughs.

Fraser is sensational, and it’s a wonder that he could move at all beneath all that special prosthetic make-up. Yet he doesn’t carry the film solo, matched as he is by top turns from Hong Chau, Samantha Morton, Ty Simpkins and especially Sadie Sink, who is fabulous in a very hard role playing a highly unlikeable character.

Kudos to Aronofsky for his brave decision to shoot in academy format (4:3), though at times it does feel a tad claustrophobic.

It might seem a little obvious to say, but with its difficult subject matter The Whale is not a film for everyone. Still, so long as people know going in that they’re in for a pungent performance-based arthouse film it should connect to a discerning audience interested in seeing a film made for adults.

Cineastes will also find a degree of elemental allure in The Whale. According to Wikipedia the film cost a paltry $US3 million to make. If that’s true – and who doubts the veracity of Wikipedia these days – it demonstrates how all you really need for a good movie is a strong story, a good director and a group of people in a room relating to each other as human beings.

Lifeline As with A Man Called Otto, The Whale deals with themes that might cause distress. For help call Lifeline on 13 11 14.