The Whale review – Brendan Fraser is remarkable in knotty drama of self-destruction

<span>Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

It’s a slippery thing, the latest film from Darren Aronofsky. And not just because of the air of general clamminess that pervades this claustrophobic theatre adaptation (although if it were possible for a camera lens to sweat, then cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s would probably do so throughout). More, it’s due to the effortlessly duplicitous way the director pushes and pulls the audience of this story of grief and self-destruction, starring a fat-suited Brendan Fraser as Charlie, a chronically obese shut-in who is belatedly trying to rebuild his relationship with his estranged daughter.

Aronofsky challenges us to see beyond our biases and pre-programmed ideas of attractiveness to find beauty in Charlie, in the warm, enveloping melody of his speaking voice, in his poetic, passionate soul. But at the same time he shoots Charlie in a way that accentuates the indignity of his mostly sofa-based existence. The camera is positioned low as Charlie heaves himself to his feet, reducing this complex, wounded character to little more than a cascade of flesh. Then there’s the airless, slightly unsavoury lighting and colour palette of Charlie’s living space, which looks like it was shot from the inside of a particularly fetid laundry basket. The film sets out to repulse us, and it frequently succeeds. It would be easy, and tempting, to dismiss it out of hand.

Related: ‘All that hyperventilating makes you dizzy’: Brendan Fraser and Darren Aronofsky on The Whale

But that would be to disregard its redeeming strength – the authentically knotty characters and the performances that inhabit them. And not just the recently Oscar-nominated Fraser, although he is remarkable, his personal magnetism working overtime. Also superb is Hong Chau, as Liz, Charlie’s friend and carer, and, in a blistering cameo as Charlie’s ex-wife, the always formidable Samantha Morton.