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FILM REVIEW: Will The Whale create waves at the Oscars?

By Hector MacKenzie

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THAT Brendan Fraser – probably best-known up until now for his role in blockbuster, The Mummy, is up for an Oscar next month may raise a few snooty eyebrows amongst film buffs questioning his pedigree.

But that could surely only be before a viewing of The Whale in which he plays Charlie a reclusive, morbidly obese English teacher who attempts to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter.

We first 'see' him in his role as an online English teacher, a blacked out square box amongst a plethora of fresh-faced students faces on a computer screen.

When students ask about it, the standard response is that his laptop camera still isn't working. All we see is the word 'Instructor', his virtual absence indicating that all is not well.

The reality is that he is more or less restricted to an armchair in his poky apartment, a recluse who is ashamed of his appearance and haunted by the death of the tragic death of the love of his life, Alan, a night class student he met and ultimately left his wife and child to be with.

Brendan Fraser turns in a career best to date in The Whale.
Brendan Fraser turns in a career best to date in The Whale.

That director Darren Aronofsky's film has been adapted from a play by Samuel D. Hunter (who adapted it for the screen) is reflected in many of the set piece exchanges and the claustrophobic apartment setting where almost all of the action takes place.

Charlie's life is a cycle of binge eating and online teaching interrupted only by the doorbell ringing for fast food takeaway deliveries or the occasional visitor.

Amongst the most regular is Liz (another Oscar-nominated performance by Hong Chau), the sister of his late lover and a somewhat cynical, world weary nurse who acts as a caregiver for Charlie.

When a life-changing piece of news prompts him to contact his estranged daughter, Ellie, (Sadie Sink), it sets in motion a sequence of events that form the basis for the story.

Despite the depression fuelling his self-destructive behaviour, there's an irrepressible optimism about the potential of other people which sits at Charlie's core: "People are amazing!" he declares at one point, his eyes fiery with passion. Even when he has been insulted, he can recognise powerful writing.

The kindness of strangers – from the disembodied voice of takeaway guy, Dan, who asks Charlie how he's doing from behind the door, to the fumbling offers of help from troubled 'missionary' Thomas (Ty Simpkins) – is hinted at throughout, prompting Charlie himself to at one point observe: "Do you ever get the feeling that people are incapable of not caring?"

If he appears disinterested in living– refusing life-saving hospital care in favour of keeping the money he has built up for a very specific reason close to his heart – he remains haunted by the need to make things right with his daughter while there's still time to do so: "I need to know that I have done one right thing with my life!", he shouts at one point as his wishes become clear.

As a teacher he lays down the gauntlet to his students on the importance of honesty above all in their writing. Their responses prompt him to state: "These assignments – they don't matter. This course doesn't matter. College doesn't matter. These amazing, honest things you wrote – they matter."

Fraser's achievement is in portraying a real depth of character with such limited action and movement, creating an empathy for Charlie and the position he finds himself in.

The Whale is one of those pin-drop movies where silence envelops the theatre as the end credits roll. It will almost certainly make an impact on awards' night and – perhaps more importantly – in everyone who sees it.

The Whale is screening at Eden Court until Thursday. See screening times here.

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