You’ve rejoiced in the McConaissance; thrilled to the ReHughvination. But has the moment now arrived for the Turn of Frase? Since the unravelling of the Mummy franchise in the mid-Noughties, things have been quiet for Brendan Fraser – but in the miraculous new feature from Darren Aronofsky, the 53-year-old actor returns with a floorboard-splitting bang. The Whale, which premiered at Venice tonight, certainly delivers on its promise of giving you the George of the Jungle star as you’ve never seen him before: as a horrifically obese middle-aged divorcee, eating himself to death inside a cluttered and shuttered flat.
The premise, especially in concert with that title, makes The Whale sound like a freak show – or worse still, an Oscar grab. (Fraser plays the role in a seamlessly realistic prosthetic suit which itself weighed more than 21 stone.) But it’s actually something far rarer and more wonderful: a piercing, compassionate parable about grace and reconciliation, told with truly Biblical force.
As a filmmaker, Aronofsky has long been drawn to the scriptural: his 2014 Noah, of course, but also the Christ symbolism of The Wrestler, and even his notoriously divisive expulsion-from-Eden allegory Mother!, which almost blew down the Palazzo del Cinema when it screened at Venice in 2017. The Whale, adapted by Samuel D Hunter from his own stage play, follows suit.
Fraser’s Charlie is living in a state of Jonah-like entrapment in the dark belly of his apartment, but the man has also been swallowed up by his own stomach – or rather the compulsive eating disorder he developed after the death of his boyfriend, and which is probably about to claim his life. Fraser’s casting is so moving in part because we can still recognise this beloved figure under the blubber, but it’s also because Fraser’s own performance doesn’t court pity. His Charlie is complex, flawed, funny and otherwise fully and radiantly human: a rounded character in more ways than one.
He’s cared for – though also kept topped up with junk food – by his late lover’s sister, an affectionate but plain-spoken nurse called Liz (a superb Hong Chau), who becomes one of four important visitors to his flat. Another is his estranged and prematurely misanthropic teenage daughter, Ellie (Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink), who has decided to reconnect with her father, perhaps out of morbid fascination. A third is Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a young missionary from an end-of-days Christian cult, and the fourth, who appears in just one excoriating scene, his ex-wife, Mary, devastatingly played by Samantha Morton.
Those comings and goings should feel inherently stagey, but Aronofsky ensures this very self-contained story feels ravishingly cinematic through the subtleties of camera placement and the intricate mapping of psychological shapes onto the limited architectural space. A second literary whale soon comes to loom, too: the one from Moby-Dick, which is the subject of a treasured child’s essay that English teacher Charlie keeps close to his heart, and which plays a pivotal role in the film’s transcendent final sequence.
The film builds slowly towards a sustained emotional wipeout, then hits you with that climax, which drew the loudest cheers yet at this year’s Venice. It is a vintage Aronofsky sign-off: as overpowering as the endings of The Wrestler and Black Swan. Who knew a film about the weakness of the flesh could be such balm for the soul?
Screening at the Venice Film Festival. A UK release has yet to be announced