The Whale: parenthood, gay love and heartbreak

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The Whale (2022)
Written by Samuel D. Hunter
Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Starring Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton
In cinemas February 2 (Australia)

Review by Barry Healy

In the opening of The Whale, we encounter the protagonist, Charlie (Brendan Fraser) masturbating to gay porn on his laptop computer. Visibly, Charlie’s most salient feature is that he is morbidly obese, weighing at least 270 kilograms.

In short order we are introduced to a door-knocking Christian missionary and an appraisal of Herman Melville’s epic novel Moby Dick (which is also titled The Whale). Quickly we learn that Charlie is probably not going to live another week.

Thus, we have the structure of this very insightful character study of the final days of a man who has chosen to die by over-eating, framed by references to Moby Dick, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself.

It is intensely intellectual, sophisticated and well-delivered by a superb cast. However, if you are unfamiliar with those references a bit of pre-reading before going to the cinema is in order.

Many reviewers, especially in the United States, have only seen Charlie’s body fat and centred their critiques on identity-politics issues associated with representations of obese people on screen. They entirely miss the significance of the literary and theological allusions.

The central dramatic questions the film presents are: what has happened to Charlie that he counts his life as nothing and is redemption available to him?

At one stage Charlie explains the significance of the sensual, gay-love masterpiece Song of Myself as “Whitman uses the metaphor of ‘I’ not to refer to himself but to explode the entire definition of self.”

If Charlie at one point in his life experienced the self-transcending beauty of love and sensuality, what has brought him to his current situation? Why has he chosen to effectively explode his body?

As the film counts down Charlie’s final days, he attempts to rebuild his relationship with his 15-year-old daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink). Sadie Sink gives her role a degree of adolescent fury that will bring tears to the eye of any parent coping with a teenager’s incisive intelligence and defiant anger.

Ellie is Moby Dick‘s Captain Ahab of Charlie’s life. He seriously betrayed her as a child and she carries the wound, as Ahab carried his wooden leg, nursing a vengeful hatred just as Ahab did for the great whale that crippled him.

That metaphorically posits Charlie not as a pathetic, overweight, beached whale, but as Herman Melville’s Leviathan of the deep; powerfully smashing those that torment him, in this case bourgeois notions of body image and reactionary Christianity. Above all else, Charlie seeks to represent truth in human relationships.

Woven through this is an examination of Christian redemption, based on a quote from Saint Paul: “Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation – but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live.”

The film delivers a scathing critique of Christianity. It turns out that while Charlie has chosen over-eating as his armour against pain, another person has gone through anorexia on the way to suicide, driven by that very quotation.

Yet redemption occurs in the most unexpected way.

Knowing the final sentence of Moby Dick helps to grasp the intent of the film: “Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.”

Writer Samuel D. Hunter has made excellent use of his literary references. But are there further depths to be fathomed?

Marxist scholar, C.L.R. James wrote a historical materialist analysis of Moby Dick in 1952, which sees it as a representation of capitalism and totalitarianism on a world scale.

The U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention reports that obesity affects 41.9% of people in the USA. So, an anti-capitalist line could be articulated in a film featuring obesity.

US Episcopal bishop, John Shelby Spong’s book, Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism: A Bishop Rethinks the Meaning of Scripture, argues from scripture that St. Paul was a self-loathing homosexual, opening yet another narrative pathway.

Director Darren Aronofsky uses a tight framing technique and limited colour palette, reflecting the story’s origin as a stage play. It is effective in focusing on the humanity of all the characters.

Less effective is his use of music and sound effects to communicate This-Is-An-Important-Moment. Each actor delivers quality performance in spades; the audience does not need to be told when to feel emotion.

With that reservation, The Whale is well worth seeing.

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