Fraser delivers a “Whale” of a performance

The Whale (Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Samantha Morton) – If I had a vote in the actor section of the Academy of Arts & Sciences, it would go to Brendan Fraser for his astonishing performance in The Whale. It’s not an easy movie or performance to watch, but it is transcendent. 

The Whale is an adaptation of a multiple award-winning play written by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay. In the hands of director Darren Aronofsky, whose specialty is psychological dramas like Black Swan and The Wrestler, The Whale feels like an exploration into self-loathing. The entire movie covers only one week.

Fraser plays Charlie, a 500+-lb. reclusive, online English teacher with a good heart and deep psychological scars. Charlie is dying; he has severe congestive heart failure. He is effectively committing suicide by eating himself to death. His life has been devolving for at least eight years since he left his wife, Mary (Samantha Morton), and daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), in favor of his new love, a man (who later committed suicide).

As Charlie’s health has declined, he refuses to go to the hospital despite being begged to do so by Liz, his lover’s sister who is also a nurse. She deeply cares for Charlie because they share a common tragedy but also because they have become co-dependent friends. In effect, Liz serves as a hospice nurse, providing comfort and even abetting his death quest. Hong Chau, who also was wonderful in The Menu, delivers a mesmerizing performance that is nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

As the week progresses, Charlie’s singular focus is on reconciling with his estranged daughter, a rebellious, deeply scarred teenager who, in her own words, “hates everybody.” She manifests this hate by using him, mocking him, and outing him. As her mother says, “She is evil.” Charlie will have none of that; to him, Ellie (Sadie Sink) is wonderful, glorious, beautiful, and talented. He realizes that she hates him for abandoning her in favor of a man. But he believes it is all his fault, that she is redeemable.

Of course, the film’s title, The Whale, acknowledges Charlie’s size but, more importantly, refers to Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s classic novel and the subject of an essay Charlie cherishes and keeps nearby.

The film feels like a play; it essentially takes place in one room. The Whale cuts deep; it will tear you up … and make you tear up. It should have been nominated for Best Picture. It is well worth your time if, for no other reason, to see Brendan Fraser’s and Hong Chau’s performances. You may want to wait to watch it at home if it comes to streaming before the Oscars in March.

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