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'The Whale' Review: Just about stands on its own two feet

Darren Aronofsky’s first attempt at a narrative feature since the hit-or-miss that was Mother! is an equally divided affair, boasting a strong selection of performances that are always scratching the door but never quite opening it.

Credit: A24

The story of Charlie, a divorcee coping with the traumatic death of his partner whilst attempting to reconnect with his abandoned daughter shares more with Aronofsky’s breakthrough Requiem for a Dream than any of his more recent works, continuously delivering harrowing conflicts between the handful of characters Charlie interacts with; all from the comfort of his house. It’s brilliantly shot, and truly loyal to Samuel D. Hunter’s original play, but at times feels restrictive or unfulfilling, especially when these characters exit, their points of view disappearing as they do.

It forces us, for better or for worse, to be glued to Charlie, and whilst Brendan Fraser, nigh-unrecognisable, is delivering the performance of his career, there are times where Aronofsky-regular Matthew Libatique’s cinematography feels heartless, composing somewhat mocking angles of the 600-pound Charlie. Argue that it is ironic if you will, but there’s no denying it can detract from the story, twisting Charlie’s pain and anguish into something comical.

This is in no way helped by Sadie Sink who, as Charlie’s estranged daughter Ellie, occupies the screen with such shrouded motivations that audience reactions to her range from laughing-out-loud to hands-over-mouths. She’s hurtful, brutal and at times, totally lacks empathy, but never drops the furious gaze that is all too rightly pointed at Charlie. I understand that she is supposed to be tormented, but her performance casts a dark shadow every time it appears on screen, hurling casual insults at Charlie or crafting newly vicious posts for her social media. Despite constant words in her defence, Aronofsky fails to make her redeemable, and even Charlie’s pleas to his ex-wife Mary (played with conviction by Samantha Morton) fail to convince us Sink is nothing short of a psychopath.

Hong Chau, on the other hand, delivers another fine supporting performance as Liz, Charlie’s nurse and best friend, acting with a greater degree of independence that allows her jokes to hit home, and her concerns to be conveyed to viewers successfully. She’s kind but not over-indulgent, convincingly portraying a nurse conflicted between her knowledge of health and her endless care for Charlie. It’s at times painful, seeing how she can’t say no to her friend, but it suffers slightly in the reveal why; it could have been brought up earlier with no sacrifice to tension nor plot.

The remaining two characters, Ty Simpkins’ suspicious missionary Thomas and Sathya Sridharan’s largely unseen pizza delivery man Dan both feel largely out of place despite their realistic concerns and presences. Whilst Sridharan just feels unnecessary, Simpkins is somewhat problematic, masquerading as an integral part of the cast but really only behaving as the audience’s mouthpiece. The conclusion of his subplot is strange and largely unfulfilling, finishing quite predicably before disappearing into the rain, never to appear again. He should have been put in the backseat, replacing Sink who could have enjoyed a greater degree of character development if she was not obstructed by his presence.

That being said, none of the performances hinder the drama of the film; by the end it is still a thought-provoking piece, successfully addressing grief, love and religion in a way that once again places Aronofsky at his best. It feels like his film, and is a welcome return to form after the wildly bizarre Mother!.

But there is one problem bigger than the rest, and I’ve aptly left it till the end to discuss.

Credit: A24

Those who have seen it will know I refer to the conclusion of the film, which is so immediate it feels as though Aronofsky is preparing us for a post-credit scene in the vein of Marvel. Sure, it is ‘ambiguous’ and ‘symbolic’, but it is a cop-out, denying us satisfying finality for most of the characters. A mere five minutes more would have solved nearly all the problems, but I find it unlikely Aronofsky would risk the discussion capabilities of his film for a thing as small as a satisfying conclusion.

Ending aside, The Whale is an excellent film; it never quite soars to the heights of Requiem for a Dream, its closest Aronofsky sibling, but it does fly, and with Brendan Fraser at the front it is a piece deserving of a watch.

The Whale will be released in 2023.

Edited by Lydia Leung, Film & TV Head Editor


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