LFF 2022: The Whale review – a fittingly strong return for Brendan Fraser

There’s been a lot made about Brendan Fraser’s history and his long road to a comeback. Suffice to say that the road to his triumphant leading role in Aronofsky’s latest is paved with people who grew up with his films. Now he takes his place as one of award’s seasons front runners and with good reason.

Fraser plays Charlie, an obese man living alone teaching online English literature classes. After learning he is suffering from congenital heart failure he tries to make amends with his estranged daughter Ellie.

As a director Darren Aronofsky can be hit or miss. When he’s good he’s the harrowing Requiem for a Dream, modern fable The Wrestler, psycho-horror Black Swan. When he’s off the boil he’s the meandering The Fountain, weird comic book biblical epic Noah or awful horror mother! Luckily we get top tier Aronofsky once again providing someone with a juicy leading role to sink their teeth in.

Aronofsky is not the most subtle director, so naturally the worry would be this would be exploitative and mean spirited. What we actually get is a film that examines how the inner turmoil affects the outside. Fraser’s Charlie is an optimist, but one dealing with a deep rooted self loathing brought on by the grief of losing his partner. Like all Aronofsky films this deals with religious and the spectre of faith.

Sadie Sink in The Whale

Aronofsky often shows Fraser from afar allowing for the make-up to take over and show the size of Charlie. For his work Fraser is magnificent, imbuing Charlie with the same kind of twinkle in his eye that made Fraser a movie star to begin with. Moments of him smiling or laughing remind us of the fun we had watching The Mummy. It’s great to see an actor given a chance to do something different and Fraser returns to movies with a big performance that we might not have known was in him in the early days.

He’s not alone though, around him are sublime performances. Hong Chau gets the best supporting turn as Charlie’s friend Liz, there’s a pain in her we come to understand her no-nonsense approaching to faith is refreshing in it’s briskness. She and Fraser have genuine chemistry and it’s a delight to see the two of them. Sadie Sink is also great as Charlie’s abrasive daughter Ellie. She’s utterly detestable and yet likeable at the same time, giving layers to a role that could easily be “angry teenage girl” role. Similarly Ty Simpkins is very good as a missionary with a past that isn’t as simple as we first expect.

At the times the stage origins do come through, not least in the way things are revealed slowly, but in adapting his own play Samuel D. Hunter does his best to make this intimate, not stage-y and Aronofsky works to help that too.

The film is also beautifully scored by Rob Simonsen that underlines the emotional weight, not the physical. This is a film about regret, about pain and about redemption offering a compassionate look at someone society is trained to find disgust in. It stands as one of the year’s best films, and a fittingly strong return for Brendan Fraser.

Welcome back, you’ve been sorely missed.

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