Everyone loves a comeback story. When I first heard that Brendan Fraser, star of childhood-defining films like Looney Tunes: Back in Action, George of the Jungle, and of course The Mummy, would be returning to headline a movie – and an A24 character study, at that – I found myself swept up in the seemingly ubiquitous outpouring of love from others who shared memories of his charismatic performances. Though by no means his first film since being effectively blacklisted by the Hollywood establishment, the sheer boldness of the task he assumes in The Whale, Darren Aronofsky’s latest serving of depressive melodrama, should definitely signal a new exciting era in his career. It is a role demanding extensive prosthetics and an incredible level of emotional vulnerability from him as an actor.

The Whale is Fraser’s film, first and foremost. In fact, despite the heft and expectations attached to Aronofsky’s name, rarely was I ever aware of the directorial vision behind what I was watching. That’s both a testament to Fraser’s performance, compelling, heartwarming and heartbreaking, as well as the problem with the film overall. Charlie, an English teacher suffering from severe obesity following the death of his partner, is the centre of gravity for the piece. Indeed it’s a role that demands the honesty and commitment of an actor like Fraser to make the film as a whole work. Luckily, he absolutely delivers as the bedrock of the piece. 

But that doesn’t make it a great film. Because of the minimal cast confined to one set, impressive though they may be, The Whale is not a film that best uses its medium to tell its story. It is an admirable documentation of a career-defining and reinvigorating performance, but little more.

Adapted from Samuel D. Hunter’s play by the playwright himself, The Whale never transcends the bounds of its original stage performance. Rarely do we leave Charlie’s apartment, which no doubt serves to create a claustrophobic, uncomfortable atmosphere, but within this admittedly restricted location Aronofsky does little to enhance the work delivered by his actors, who try to deliver naturalistic performances to soften the undeniable theatricality of Hunter’s script. There is none of the boldness of Requiem for a Dream, nor the psychological chaos of mother!. His camera is slow, relatively static, and aside from an opening shot reminiscent of the bus scene from North by Northwest, it’s hard to discern any major conscious directorial choices on his part. I came away thinking that it could have been directed by anyone, which is a shame for a director as idiosyncratic as Aronofsky. 

With a title like The Whale you would expect it to have its fair share of controversy. Charges of fatphobia and dehumanisation have been levied at the film’s depiction of the 600-pound man, particularly due to the reliance on extensive prosthetics to bring Charlie’s body to life. In its defense, the title is in some ways justified through the film’s consistent allusions to Melville’s Moby-Dick, subtitled The Whale, which obviously serves as a fruitful if somewhat obvious analogue for Charlie’s experience: grappling with existential issues, he tries to confront them in purely material, self-destructive ways. Charlie’s appearance is perhaps the main thing the film can offer over the play, along with the greater naturalism afforded by the intimacy of a closed set: while the stage production only requires the lead actor to wear an inflatable body suit, Fraser is completely transformed, from his hair to the tips of his fingers. It’s undoubtedly an astounding accomplishment in makeup and a necessary one: going ‘method’ to play a man on the verge of death is just not going to work. But is it enough of a reason to bring this admittedly very personal and hard-hitting play to the big screen? I don’t think so.

The Whale is about getting through to people. As an English teacher for an online college course, he’s not interested in getting his students to tick boxes: he wants them to write honestly, to a sometimes brutal extent. Throughout the course of the film, Charlie tries to reconnect with his troubled daughter Ellie, played with a sustained ferocity by Sadie Sink: far and away the best thing to come out of Stranger Things. His attempts at reconciliation and her abusive rebuttals make for excruciating viewing. Both characters are in deep pain, caused by each other and themselves. They connect in odd and not exactly healthy ways, and the interactions between Sink and Fraser are easily the most engaging moments of the film.

But despite all this, it never really feels like we get through to Charlie; no matter how close the camera gets, it still feels like we’re watching from the stalls rather than being there with him in his headspace. The stories of other characters, like the door-to-door missionary Thomas (Ty Simpkins), who feels compelled to visit Charlie and offer him spiritual assistance before his imminent death, are well rendered but peripheral to Fraser. We get glimpses of his past in brief cutaways, but the playscript’s reliance on expository dialogue, with seemingly little done to suit its adaptation, hinders what could be a devastating emotional connection. 

It doesn’t help that it also has one of the worst endings I have seen for a long time, purely for the fact that Aronofsky finally decides to indulge in his textbook melodrama to a nauseatingly sentimental extent, as if he suddenly remembered that this is a film he is directing. What could have been an oddly life-affirming moment in Aronofsky’s characteristically grim oeuvre ends up unfortunately looking and feeling like the Thus Spoke Zarathustra moment in Pixar’s WALL-E. No, really.  

This is perhaps the most depressing thing about The Whale. For all the unsettling drones of its soundtrack, the stinging dialogue, and the hopelessness of Charlie’s self-destructive state, I left the cinema feeling profoundly unaffected. I couldn’t help but think there was a smoother way of swimming between the distant ports of stage and screen. As it is, this Whale is, alas, beached.