Movie review: The Whale

(courtesy IMP Awards)

Being emotionally affected by a movie is hardly a unique experience.

In fact, when you go to see a film, you want to be moved in some way whether it’s eliciting a laugh in a comedy, a romantic swoon-worthy sign in a rom-com, or a gasp of fear or amazement in an immersive drama.

But feeling like you’ve had your heart and soul torn from your body, felt them being torn in a thousand different directions and quietly replaced back in their rightful place but wholly changed by the tsunami-like torrent of emotions? Why, that’s a whole different things and extraordinarily rare.

So rare that when it happens like it does countlessly throughout the intimately invasive journey that Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, you surface afterwards awash in so many thoughts and emotions, that grappling with what happened to you and how it made you think and feel, feels all but impossible.

Such that when the friend who has accompanied you to see this singularly brilliant film, based on Samuel D. Hunter’s play of the same name, asks you what you think, your normally articulate and garrulously-inclined brain, quick to process and to form opinions in normal circumstances, is left rendered near speechless, knowing it has seen something truly special but still unsure what it means, save for the fact that it means a LOT.

This is about all that could be managed via Twitter on the night …

That grasping for distillation of coherent thought and feeling is wholly understandable in a film that while it’s set largely in one apartment somewhere in seemingly endlessly rainy Idaho, contains a whole world of emotion, much of trapped in an incessant loop of self-hatred, misery and palpable lack of forgiveness.

The man at the centre of the story, Charlie, played with Oscar worthy intensity and heartrending vulnerability by Brendan Fraser – who must get a Academy Award for Best Actor if there is any justice in the world – is the one in whom all of these bleak emotions resides.

The whale of the story, Charlie has ballooned out to 600lbs in imperial measures, trapped by a profound grief caused in large part by his self-perceived failure to save his partner of eight years, Alan, from his spiral into a death brought on, it’s suggested, by being unable to reconcile his fundamentalist Christian faith with his homosexuality (which led to him being disowned by his cult leader-like pastor father).

At one point in the film, Charlie breaks down in conversation with Alan’s sister, and his carer, Liz (Hong Chau), bitterly sad that he couldn’t save Alan, that he thought, clearly mistakenly, that in the face of the removal of love by his father that Alan could survive on the love of Charlie alone.

He is also regretful to an almost destructive degree about the way he handled the beginning of his relationship with Alan, a onetime mature-age student of Charlie’s who is an English professor who conducts online college writing courses with the camera off – he is aware that most people will find him disgusting, a recurringly damning theme in the film which is an indictment on the predilection too many of us have to make negative assumptions of why someone is the way they are and judge them for it – blaming himself for leaving his wife Mary (Samantha Morton) and daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) in the lurch.

Admitting he was in the closet and married Mary for the wrong reasons – though when she turns up in the apartment, there is clear affection between them, despite the attendant anger and resentment that keeps rolling off Mary – he nevertheless wishes he could have left the marriage in a way where no one got hurt.

That was clearly never going to happen simply because it never really does but with his stark sadness over Alan’s passing colouring everything for the worse to the point where congestive heart failure is days away from killing him with The Whale acting as a conveyor of farewells to those who have mattered in his life (as well as Thomas, a door-to-door missionary who is convinced, though not as cleanly as he first appears, to think all Charlie needs is some good old Jesus-shaped salvation), Charlie’s internal monologue shouts damnation, brokenness and failure at fearsomely loud and unforgiving volume.

His long-simmering pain has le him to eat and eat and eat in volumes and in scenes that many will find confronting.

Charlie’s emotionally driven bingeing is noisy, desperately sad and destructively terrible, a parade of pizzas, soft drinks, chips and jam on sandwiches and buckets of fried chicken that is consumed in a frantic bid to ward off the all-consuming darkness of a soul that refuses to believe any kind of salvation, whether it’s the religious (which is condemned repeatedly and broadly condemned as the answers that only deluded weak fools embrace), the ending of estrangement between him and Ellie or the selfless caring of Liz who begs him to care better for himself, can make any difference to him now.

He is a broken man, so profoundly broken in two and unable to allow anyone to help put him back together that he accepts death in lieu of any sort of salvationary salve, whether it’s going to a hospital or forgiving himself.

Watching Charlie in The Whale is heartbreakingly, overwhelmingly and beautifully intense because it is so raw, so true and so human, a deeply affecting story which acknowledges that sometimes life simply can’t be fixed.

It’s not all nihilistically hopeless; there are signs that Ellie may be a good person at heart, all signs of avarice and scornful disregard aside, and his friendship with Liz is a thing of unconditional love and selfless giving, a moving thread of connection that runs throughout the film and gives it a beating heart of positivity amidst the gloom of brokenness and loss.

The tragedy of Charlie is not that he has made some poor decisions because that is stuff of being human with perfection a slippery aspiration we never quite manage to hold fully, or even partly, in our trembling grasp, but that he is lost in his pain and grief that he cannot see anything but condemnation and horrific failure, unable to appreciate that perhaps he isn’t as culpable as he thinks and that others are just as much to blame, with a lot of forgiveness needing to be shared all around.

The Whale is a dramatically complex film which mocks Christianity’s mindlessly and delusionally simplistic answers to the trenchant unsolvable problems of life and to the propensity of people to fail to see life from anyone else’s vantage point, but also an achingly intimate and rawly vulnerable one which empathetically extends a hand of understanding that knows none of us are perfect and all of us have failed in some way or another and that forgiveness, muscular real world forgiveness that embraces the troubling multiplicities of the human condition, is a necessity if we are to save what we can of a broken life.

Although, reflecting The Whale‘s brutal honest all the way through, it’s perhaps devastatingly sadly true that sometimes salvation of any kind simply isn’t possible, with forgiveness, if it can even be grasped, coming too late, such as for Charlie, who is a sobering reminder that lamentably many of us don’t get the happy endings longed for and that maybe sadness, loss and grief win sometimes, however much we wish (like Liz) that they wouldn’t.

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