Since it premiered at the Venice International Film Festival earlier this month, Darren Aronofsky’s latest film The Whale has received plenty of buzz and criticism. So what do we know about the film ahead of its December 9 release in the U.S.?
Brenan Fraser toplines the film as Charlie, a fat gay man who left his family years ago for his now-dead lover. The Whale centers on the isolated Charlie’s efforts to reconnect with his teenage daughter Ellie, played by Stranger Things’ Sadie Sink.
Fraser received a six-minute standing ovation for his performance after the film’s Venice premiere, which reportedly moved the actor to tears. The scene was similar at the Toronto International Film Festival last week. The Whale is being hailed as a comeback for the 53-year-old actor, and he’s already being talked about as a potential Oscar nominee for Best Actor.
“Fraser makes us see beyond the alarming appearance to the deeply affecting heart of this broken man,” writes The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney. “In a film about salvation, it’s the inextinguishable humanity of Fraser’s performance that floors you.”
Hollywood, it seems, still loves nothing more than a straight actor playing a suffering gay character.
But The Whale has also been incredibly divisive. While film critics have praised its “empathy” and “compassion,” it has also drawn criticism for casting Fraser—who wore a fat suit and other prosthetics to play the 600-pound Charlie—rather than a larger actor.
“No matter how well a slim actor might portray a fat person in a dramatic role, they can still, at the end of the day, zip out of that fat suit and reap all the benefits of having a societally-accepted body type. They can absorb the praise of being fat when it suits them, but can shed that skin at will,” writes Charlotte Colombo of The Digital Fix. However, she questions whether having an actor who actually weights 600 pounds play a role in which the character is described as “eating themselves to death” is good for the actor’s mental health.
Others have called out The Whale’s condescending depiction of the character as fatphobic. As NPR notes, Aubrey Gordon, co-host of the podcast Maintenance Phase, criticized the film’s premise on Twitter: “It’s so telling that so many only see fat people as ‘humanized’ in media that shows us doing exactly what they expect: living short, small lives; ‘eating ourselves to death’; feeling sad & regretful. All reminders of how tragic it is to be fat, and how superior it is to be thin.”
Woof. This is a dynamic in so, so much anti-fat media that thin people describe as "humanizing." It reinforces viewers' anti-fat bias, & those viewers confuse the pity they feel *based on their own judgments* as understanding of the actual experiences of fat people. https://t.co/bUudZlUBgF
— Aubrey Gordon (she/her/hers) (@yrfatfriend) September 5, 2022
Out comedian Guy Branum compiled a blistering tweet thread of the most offensive descriptions of the character in reviews of the film.
“The most exciting part of the release of The Whale is getting to read all the ways film critics will apply the full might of their BA in English to the task of describing how gross bodies like mine are!” he wrote.
The most exciting part of the release of "The Whale" is getting to read all the ways film critics will apply the full might of their BA in English to the task of describing how gross bodies like mine are! pic.twitter.com/iXVKxVysQ8
— Guy Branum (@guybranum) September 7, 2022
In her review for Polygon, Katie Rife characterized the film as sadistic.
“It proceeds from the assumption that a 600-pound man is inherently unlovable,” she writes. “Audience members get to walk away proud of themselves that they shed a few tears for this disgusting whale, while gaining no new insight into what it’s actually like to be that whale. That’s not empathy. That’s pity, buried under a thick, smothering layer of contempt.”