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#TIFF22 Review: The Whale (Special Presentations)

September 14, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

The 2022 Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8th to 18th.

Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale, an adaptation of writer Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 play, finds the director back in the same stripped down character study mode as his 2008 masterpiece The Wrestler. And where that film gave Mickey Rourke a career-redefining role that nearly won him an Oscar (and he should have won), this film does the same for Brendan Fraser, facilitating a return for the actor that is nothing short of incredible. It feels so good to have him back, and he delivers the performance of a lifetime in a film that is nothing short of devastating.

Fraser stars in the film as Charlie, a six hundred pound man who is barely able to move from the couch in the centre of his cramped apartment, having fallen into a depression after the death of his boyfriend. He is being helped by Liz (Hong Chau), a nurse and close friend who urges him to go to the hospital, but he refuses to go. Charlie has congestive heart failure, and knows that he might be dying, but insists on wanting to stay at home.

The only thing that he wants before his death is to reconnect with his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink). Ellie is an angry teenager who is genuinely cruel to everyone around her, including her dad. She still harbours resentment towards him for leaving her mother (Samantha Morton) and walking out on their family, but Charlie recognizes a loneliness and sadness in her that he wants to help heal.

If The Whale is a film that feels like it addresses a lot of heavy topics (and has already inspired a frustratingly simplistic social media discourse), Aronofsky and Hunter are able to tackle them all in a way that never tips the balance into exploitation. Hunter’s screenplay is rich with deeper themes, from literary motifs including a narrative through-line involving Moby Dick that gives the film its title, to themes of homophobia and religious extremism. The result is a tender, nuanced character drama that becomes deeply and profoundly moving as it goes along.

The film’s small ensemble cast really brings the material to life. Chau is wonderful as the healthcare worker and friend who is trying to find the balance between helping, enabling, and respecting Charlie’s medical choices. Sink has the near-impossible task of playing a hard to love character, and rises to the challenge with a compelling performance. Ty Simpkins rounds out the cast as a student who is on a spiritual mission as part of his religious sect, and keeps coming to Charlie’s apartment in hopes that he can help him find salvation through God.

At the centre of it all is Fraser, who delivers a remarkable, career-defining performance after a long hiatus in Hollywood. Charlie is a character who is filled with so much sorrow and regret, while also having immense empathy for those around him, and these emotions all palpably register on Fraser’s face in ways that will rip your heart out. He is aided by some truly impressive makeup and prosthetics work that never once impedes the deep expressiveness of his acting or facial expressions.

Aronofsky does an excellent job of directing the film, which basically unfolds as a chamber piece inside Charlie’s small apartment, aided by Matthew Libatique’s cinematography and a moving score by Rob Simonsen. It all adds up to being an incredibly impactful and brilliantly written and acted piece of work that left me sobbing by the end, as it builds to a transcendent final scene.

Public Screenings:

Sunday, September 11th – 5:30 PM at Royal Alexandra Theatre

Monday, September 12th – 11:30 AM at Scotiabank 2

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