The Whale – Review

Worth seeing: for a big central performance in a disappointingly small film that doesn't evolve much from its origins as a stage play
Director:Darren Aronofsky
Featuring:Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau, Jacey Sink, Sadie Sink, Samantha Morton, Sathya Sridharan, Ty Simpkins
Length:117 minutes
Released:3rd February 2023


Charlie (Brendan Fraser) is an English lecturer who tutors online – with his camera off, so that his students can’t see that he’s morbidly obese.

He’s single – having left his wife Mary (Samantha Morton) eight years earlier for a younger man, whose premature death prompted his overeating.

His only real friend is Liz (Hong Chau), the sister of his late boyfriend – and helpfully, given his endless list of medical conditions, a nurse.

With his health deteriorating, he refuses to go to hospital, insisting that he needs to save his money for his daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), who’s recently come back into his life – more to annoy her mother than for any love for Charlie. In fact, she makes it quite clear that she has nothing but disgust for this whale of a man – although she softens a little, when he offers to help her with a school assignment.


Darren Aronofsky’s adaptation of Samuel D Hunter’s stage play makes little effort to take advantage of its switch to the big screen; its 4-by-3 ratio – like an old TV – almost drained of colour and in near constant darkness, set largely inside Charlie’s flat, give it a claustrophobic feel – and its structure feels theatrical, with Brendan Fraser holding court centre stage as supporting-character after supporting-character enters from the wings, one-by-one, to hold a deep and meaningful conversation, before leaving the flat to make way for the next.

Those deep and meaningful conversations are profound explorations of love and loyalty, duty and responsibility, hope and faith, anger and regret, passion and art – they’re familiar themes, but taken together, they amount to an interesting, intellectual exercise befitting a film about a teacher of English literature.

But the journey of the narrative itself feels disappointingly arch; with captions making it clear that the events are squeezed into the course of just a few days, it feels unlikely that so much should happen over the course of a random, yet significant week of his life – involving both the arrival of largely pointless new people and the return of key figures from his past.

But if you don’t mind a theatrical experience and a little brain exercise, you’ll find the narrative to be heart-breaking – and heart warming – as Charlie tries to reconnect with his cantankerous, estranged daughter, before it’s too late, even if you might not think she deserves him.

The most remarkable thing is Brendan Fraser’s performance – rightly being described as a comeback, after many years in the acting wilderness. Struggling with his weight, his emotions and his legacy, he is outstanding – whether it’s eliciting empathy or simply the physicality of his movement. He inhabits the character and is so convincing that when he next appears on screen, people will wonder how he managed to shake off all that weight so quickly.