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The Whale presents strange and unappealing topics in a thought-provoking manner

Audrey Kupferberg analyzing some old film in her home in 2021.
Jackie Orchard

A good friend of mine asked me if the recent film The Whale was depressing. I said no, but I’ve been wondering why I did. Why is a film about a morbidly obese man who cannot, will not, leave his small, dreary apartment not depressing?

Part of the answer lies in the brilliant script by Samuel D. Hunter who adapted the screenplay from his own prize-winning play of the same name. With the much-publicized screenwriters’ strike, audiences should be more aware than ever of the weight and depth of words in the films we watch. So many movies and TV programs rely on action and glitz for entertainment that it may slip the minds of some that a talented writer can make gold from a drama set in a drab room with characters who move no more than a few feet in any direction.

Part of the answer lies in the presentation, the acting and direction in this case. Brendan Fraser, who won the Oscar for his performance, dons Oscar-winning make-up and a sophisticated fat suit to play Charlie, a forlorn, sedentary English teacher whose marriage has long ago gone down the tubes. Adding to his dejected state, his estranged daughter, a smart-ass teenager who strikes me as downright cruel, makes him even more befuddled about life. He sits in his home, his prison, teaching only through online means. He makes excuses to shut his computer camera so that the students cannot see what he looks like.

Charlie is the crux of the drama. If all other characters, the nurse friend, his wife and daughter, and the odd missionary lad, were merely spoken about instead of actual characters, The Whale could survive as a one-man show.

Is part of the appeal of The Whale that we, the viewers, know what Brendan Fraser actually looks like, that he is a broad-built man who is sweet-looking with dreamy eyes and a warm smile? Or maybe the small mysteries that are revealed as the plot develops manage to keep us engrossed – and we are not depressed.

Whatever the attractions are, for me The Whale brings filmmaking back to low-budget studio productions of the mid-20th century when the script was the significant element that made stories set in lackluster settings spark the interest of audiences.

The Whale’s director, Darren Aronofsky, is a master at creating fascination in films that combine mystery and gloom within stories of people on the verge of irrational thought and behavior… Black Swan in 2010 and Mother! in 2017, for example. Aronofsky’s feature, Requiem for a Dream from 2000, is an early example of that quality.

Avid moviegoers used to talk about critic/professor Andrew Sarris’ auteurist approach to the categorization of filmmakers. I would say that Aronofsky is an auteur with this special flavor to his most personal works.

Even though the plot of The Whale takes place in Moscow, Idaho, Samuel D. Hunter’s hometown, it was shot in Newburgh NY. It was Aronofsky’s first digitally shot film. The Whale is available for home screening on disc and streaming.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and retired appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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