Film Review (TIFF 2022): ‘The Whale’ shows the repercussions of translating a play to the big screen

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Director: Darren Aronofsky

Writer: Samuel D. Hunter

Stars: Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau

Synopsis: A reclusive English teacher living with severe obesity tries to reconnect with his teenage daughter for one last chance at redemption.

If you could describe Darren Aronofsky’s films in two words, it would be polarizing and agonistic, in a good way. His traits have a brutal, self-destructive demeanor that makes for a harrowing experience but especially worth it once he peaks. This somewhat belligerent behavior creates an atmosphere of pure tension, whatever the topic. It feels like his movies come to an end once everything comes crashing down for the main character, a cataclysmic ending that lingers in your mind for a long time. However, he doesn’t stick to the same shticks or techniques. Somehow Aronofsky finds ways to reinvent himself, whether it’s a parable of the bible and mother earth or stories of broken humans trying to reach their goal, whatever the price. Although he has received critical acclaim and various nods from the awards circuit, mostly in his dramatic adventures, Aronofsky has had his array of pans from critics, like Fountain, Noahand mother! – the latter doesn’t deserve such hate, because I think it’s his best feature yet.

Six years have passed since delivering his best work, and now Darren Aronofsky is back with a film that feels different from the rest of his filmography; more restrained and less aggressive work than his other traits. Of course, it still contains the feelings of desperation, paranoia and self-destruction we’re used to seeing from the acclaimed director. Yet this time around, it’s more of a theatrical experience than a cinematic journey — a choice that hurts the whole project. The reason is that his latest is an adaptation of Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 play, “The Whale.” This film not only marks Aronofsky’s return to the big screen but is also recognized as the return of Brendan Fraser, and everyone is ecstatic for him (the movement is called the Brendabirthday). If any director could whip up a project that would challenge Fraser to show us his acting skills, it would be Aronofsky, as he has done in the past with Mickey Rourke in The wrestler – which should have earned him an Oscar. However, unlike the aforementioned film, The whale feels missing and poorly translated to the big screen from its stage game origins.

The whale, as a whole, isn’t the gripping hit many people expect, but it does demonstrate Fraser’s acting abilities. And that’s obvious since his performance is the backbone of this project. Unfortunately, it fails to elevate the derivative aspects orchestrated by its director. Fraser plays Charlie, an English professor who leads an online college course through Zoom. There is darkness amid his subtle voice filled with empathy. He mourns the death of his deceased lover, for whom he left his wife and young daughter, slowly eating himself to death. He’s guilt-stricken, indulging in excessive amounts of food to fill the void in his broken heart, which to him seems irreparable by the time we see it. Although inconsolable to the point of self-destruction, Charlie is gentle with the people in his life. He sees the light in people, therefore trying to help people any way he can, in closing his claustrophobic apartment. As Fraser often described his character, “his superpower is seeing the good in people.”

The whale begins by presenting a form of darkness, as Charlie doesn’t want to show his face to the class by stating that his camera isn’t working – creating a void for his face. As soon as the class ends, we get our first glimpse; Charlie’s first sight is of him masturbating, which causes a heart attack that nearly kills him. His only friend, Liz (the excellent Hong Chau, who shows acute ferocity to balance Charlie’s dismissive but caring demeanor), points out that he has incredibly high blood pressure and should go to the hospital. Instead, Charlie refuses, creating this anguish of misery and self-loathing that is hard for the audience to watch, especially in scenes where he eats large amounts of food (fried chicken, takeout pizza, candy). Besides Liz, who both share a tragic bond, there are a trio of characters in his life: his ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton, who kills her brief scene – the best of the mile-wide film), her daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) and a young missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins).

Death is imminent, but there is no specific time frame for when it will happen. So, before dying, Charlie wants to reconcile with his daughter as soon as possible. This creates dynamic scenarios that balance an array of emotions. On the one hand, the aggressive bashing Ellie delivers to her father comes so she can express her inner pains of abandonment and her mother’s emotional unavailability. Conversely, Charlie balances with gentleness and understanding because he regrets the choices he made in the past. If anything can hold Charlie’s heart together, it would be faith in his daughter to change her ways. He sees the good in people, even in his state of self-loathing. Although these characters hold their hearts together by the thinnest cover, The whale is the story of a man providing the tools so they can be saved, even though he is in a worse situation. Charlie is the vessel to help the people in his life have a chance at redemption.

He knows he’s on his last leg; body and soul are separated. Still, Charlie remains optimistic that his words could impact Liz, Ellie, or Mary to the point of personal metamorphosis, not forgiveness. This is a more dialogue-oriented feature of Aronofsky, centered on larger, albeit thematically narrow, conversational settings. It does not contain his chaotic stylistic sequences since he chose a more closed approach to cinema. The main problems with The whale do not come from this stylistic departure. The issues stem from the fact that aside from the performance of Brendan Fraser (and two supporting players, Chau and Morton), which is huge (no other words can describe this transformative portrayal), there is nothing other to admire or impress; even Matthew Libatique’s cinematography leaves a bit more to be desired. At least Brendan Fraser delivers. In the self-loathing scenes, you just can’t escape the fact that Fraser plays Charlie in the other parts of the feature, full of soul and trust in others. A little like The wrestler was a redemption arc for Mickey Rourke, this is clearly Fraser’s comeback tour, and he deserves a lot of love and praise for his great work here and his entire career.

Even Aronofsky’s weaker features have uniqueness and creativity in their enhancement. In The whale, he decides to contain his creativity visually and aesthetically, to pursue a melodramatic impulse. Forget the overly faked psychedelic montages of Requiem for a dreamthe cataclysmic approach of mother!or the disorienting character of his first feature film, Pi. Instead, there’s claustrophobia galore but filmed in a way that isn’t narratively pleasing. The unique location The whale is installed does not leave much room for inventiveness; its translation from the stage to the big screen fails because no cinematic tricks are pulled and most of its lines don’t render as well as writer Samuel D. Hunter might have thought. It’s different from Florian Zeller The father, who played around with production design, costuming, and editing to make us feel like we’re inside the head of its lead character. There is no outside world. People come and go at Charlie’s apartment, which isn’t a bad thing. The problem is that they just state wants and needs repeatedly, feeling unrealistic and unhumanistic. The whale tackles Aronofsky’s favorite themes with his usual small amount of “shock factor”.

Still, one wishes he would develop them further because it’s almost exactly like The wrestler, but with a narrower complexity in its narrative presentation. Each character’s backgrounds are revealed in a messy way that takes you off a potential melancholic roller coaster because you start thinking about the meandering plot. Like its cinematic setting, everything feels cramped, both thematically and narratively. If one thing could preserve it, it would be performance; they are the key, not salvation. The rest must work to be a total success. Aronofsky faces an unpredictable twist of bland and lacking character portrayals. The actors leading these roles are the ones who do the heavy lifting (without the help of the script or the direction), which rarely happens in the projects in which he is involved. He is intellectual to a fault and lacks the visceral strengths that Aronofsky offers in his previous features. There are some gruesome scenes and some that break your heart, but that doesn’t lead to much in the grand scheme of things. It’s one person’s journey to pure cataclysm and erasure with a beating heart in Fraser, which does something to elevate the lackluster elements of the film’s infrastructure. I just wished the movie as a whole was as strong as Brendan Fraser’s acting return.

Rating: C

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