The Whale


Charlie (Brenden Fraser) is fat. Very fat. One of those sixty stone specimens Channel Four used to make documentaries about. He eats whole buckets of KFC and meatball subs two at a time. He is, in fact, fairly knowingly engaged in committing suicide-by-pizza. He can't leave his apartment; but makes a decent living as an online college tutor. He teaches Eng Lit and tells his students about the importance of structure and revision. He never switches on his web-cam, so they don't know what he looks like.

In the last week of his life, he is visited, by Mary (Samantha Morton), his estranged wife; Ellie (Sadie Sink), his estranged daughter; Liz (Hong Chau), his friend and carer; and Tony, a door-to-door evangelist. Tony, who thinks homosexuality is a sin, just happens to drop by to share the good news while Charlie is wanking over a YouTube video of two guys making out and having a heart attack. 

They visit him consecutively and concurrently, and talk to him, frequently in raised voices. Mary talks to Charlie and Tony talks to Charlie and Ellie talks to Charlie and then Mary talks to Tony and Mary talks to Ellie and so on until all the permutations have been gone through and Charlie finally dies, a merciful relief to all concerned. Ellie has to give Charlie a sleeping tablet to provide a pretext to do her one-to-one with Tony. I was not entirely surprised to find that the film is an adaptation of a stage play. It is shot in 4:3 ratio, but a blaring orchestral score keeps telling us what we are supposed to be feeling, which is helpful, because I wasn't feeling anything. At all.

American legitimate theatre seems to be a little more old fashioned and traditional than modern British theatre. Traditional theatre is about small casts and small stages. Two tramps and a tree; two couples in an apartment; a fat guy and the four people who can still be bothered to visit him. The Whale doesn't quite stick to the Aristotelean Unities, but it limits the action to the main room of Charlie's apartment, and we see all the encounters in real-time. 

It gradually unfolds, through dialogue, that Charlie left his wife some eight years ago for a male student much younger than him; and that the male student was a former member of a millennial Christian sect, and that his religious guilt indirectly led to him committing suicide. And it transpires that Liz, the carer, is the daughter of one of the leaders of he same sect. And then we find out that she is Charlie's boyfriend's sister. So naturally when Charlie is close to death it's a random member of the same church turns up on his doorstep. Some level of contrivance is expected in the theatre: indeed, ingenious contrivance is part of what we mean by a Good Play. Cinema, where the canvass is as wide as the director's imagination and the budget will allow, is expected to be slightly more believable.

Recall that the play version of Educating Rita consists of two people in a university study; but the film version broadens it out and shows some of the things which are only talked about on the stage. Because, like, theatre isn't cinema and apples aren't oranges. It would have helped if we could have seen Ellie talking to her school counsellor or seen Tony falling out with his religious family; or even seen Charlie's back story emerge in flashbacks. But no: everyone walks through the front door and tells us what has just happened. Brief Encounter was originally five scenes in a British Rail cafe. 

The physical facts of morbid obesity are dealt with interestingly and quite sensitively: pullies to lift Charlie out of bed an onto the loo; mechanical grabbers to help him pick things up; a dropped key a major disaster. I don't buy the accusation that putting a normal sized actor in a prosthetic fat-suit is disrespectful to people with eating disorders. I think Fraser probably explained to director Darren Aronofsky that he was not a wizard, and Aronofsky told him to imagine what a wizard would do and to pretend to do those things on the day. (The words were written down in a script.) Charlie frequently tells people, and is told, that he is disgusting. At one point he goes into a feeding frenzy until he throws up. (If the Menu didn't put you off your dinner, this will.) But it's no freak show: we are allowed to see past the body and look at the man. The story is about grief and fatherhood and religion and English literature, not about fatness. But that's a problem in itself. A medical condition -- physical and mental -- is being used purely as a symbol of isolation and alienation. One of the big sentimental plot glurges depends on an old Eng Lit essay, and the Eng Lit essay just happens to be about Moby Dick. Which is just crass.

Everything feels schematic. The New Life Church is clearly awful; but Tony, the evangelist, is shown as sincere and well-meaning and even kind. (//John Finnemore voice// Gosh, you're so three dimensional.) He does a good job of convincing us that he is looking forward to the end times in a hopeful, not a morbid way. I kind of wish he, or the writer, hadn't misapplied Biblical texts about "the flesh" (meaning the physical world) as referring to disgusting overweight bodies, but there you go. He describes himself as a missionary; wears an over-formal dark suit, and smiles a lot. And the story takes place in Iowa. And yes, oddly enough, in the original play, he was referred to as Elder Tony. I wonder if the piece lost some of its focus when it stopped being specifically about former Mormons and became about former members of a non-specific religious sect we just made up out of our heads?

Ellie, Charlie's appalling daughter, is a one-note thirty-something's impression of what sixteen year olds are like nowadays. She won't look up from her phone, she says fuck and bullshit a lot and she hates everything and everyone and keeps on saying so. Charlie keeps saying that she is a wonderful and amazing person. Because, like, he can look beneath the surface and see the beauty inside; but can she, like, ever look beneath the surface and see the beauty inside him? (SPOILER: Probably.)

It's not un-clever. I didn't dis-enjoy joining the dots and working out how the structure fitted together. But it's all artifice: ideas without feelings. Alan (the dead boyfriend) seems to have been anorexic; Charlie is eating himself to death. Charlie talks about honesty; but won't let his students see his face or even open the door to the pizza man. Liz is trying to save him (because she couldn't save her brother) but she is also providing the food with which he is killing himself. Tony sincerely intends to save people, but indirectly causes harm. Ellie does an unbelievably spiteful thing to Tony but indirectly saves him. Charlie's flat is disgusting, but the bedroom he shared with Alan is kept pristine.

When they first meet, Ellie spitefully asks Charlie to walk across the room to her without his zimmer frame, which he is quite obviously incapable of doing. In the final seconds he stands up and walks across the room to her of his own volition. While she is reading the essay about Moby Dick out loud. Oh, god.

It wasn't not interesting. I didn't not want to know how it came out. I haven't not being thinking about it since I left the cinema. I didn't not think the central performances were pretty good. I didn't even not like Charlie as a character. I wouldn't want you to not go and see it on the basis of this review: you might fall on the other side of the critical line from me. I guess now the film's come out one of Bristol's little theatres will have a shot at the original play, and I bet I'll like that a lot better.

Shortly before the Phantom Menace came out, I wrote a very snarky essay about a movie called The Mummy: so now the two movies which have annoyed me most in the last twenty two years have both starred Brenden Fraser.

I think I have now seen all the films about literature professors who tell their students to stop writing analytically and just put down their honest responses that I need to see in my life.


I'm Andrew.

I am trying very hard to be a semi-professional writer and have taken the leap of faith of down-sizing my day job.

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