On Darren Aronofsky’s ‘The Whale’ and fat phobia

Tank Green/ March 18, 2023/ Reviews

I watched Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale last night. I had no idea what the film was about before watching it: I chose it simply because Samantha Morton is in it and because Aronofsky directed it. Be warned: this review has major spoilers.

I should say off the bat that I generally like Aronofsky’s films, even if they are not always quite realised, and even though the endings sometimes seem rushed and weird, as The Whale’s did. That said, I found The Whale to be incredibly moving; it even brought me to tears a couple of times, which is a very rare occurrence. In sum, the film is about a reclusive, obese teacher who is attempting to reconnect with his estranged teenage daughter.

I did some review reading after watching it, and I was surprised to see how many people hated the film and accused it of fat phobia. Whilst I agree that perhaps a genuinely morbidly obese actor might have been a better choice for the role of Charlie, I do not believe that you can otherwise fault Brendan Fraser‘s performance. I see that he won an Oscar for it, and that is just as it should be. Fraser brought a profound and absolute beauty to the role.

I do not see how this film can be accused of fat phobia (although I can perhaps see misogyny). Of the five principal characters, Fraser’s Charlie was by far the most beautiful and realised. To see his character solely in terms of his obesity is, to my mind, to diminish him. His obesity was second order to his struggles for truth and honesty, and his capacity for love and acceptance.

In my reading, his obesity was simply the illness he struggled with as a result of the profound and devastating loss of his partner. Like three quarters of Americans, he was overweight before this trauma, and, in his own words, let his weight ‘get out of control’ as a consequence of the loss. In this sense, his obesity is irrelevant as it simply functions as a manifestation of his grief.

Surrounding him are three women: his best friend (played absolutely masterfully by Hong Chau); his daughter; and his ex-wife. All three women are sharp tongued, and dealing very poorly with their own adverse life experiences, to greater and lesser degrees. As they live with their own losses (a brother, a father, and a husband, respectively), none of them manage the beauty and grace that Charlie does. Each are diminished in contrast to him, literally and figuratively.

Charlie’s capacity for love, and his striving for truth and honesty, are set against an outside world of judgement. From the young ‘missionary’ who wants to redeem him, to the pizza delivery guy’s emotional about-face once he finally sees Charlie, to the faces of Charlie’s online students once he finally turns his camera on. In each of these moments, we see how much less humanity these people possess as a consequence of their judgement of Charlie. In each instance, we are reminded of the size and majesty of Charlie’s grace.

At the end of the film, Charlie dies as a consequence of his grief-cum-obesity, and it is perhaps this which has outraged some people. However, in my opinion, this ending also serves to honour the truth of Charlie’s life: (morbid) obesity kills (as does unchecked grief). Charlie’s death by obesity is set against the backdrop of his partner’s death by starvation. His partner’s slow suicide was brought on, in large part, due to his Christian family not accepting Charlie as his partner: it was death-by-judgement. In this sense, Charlie’s own slow suicide is a mirror, and it serves to underscore why Charlie was so desperate that we should accept one another truthfully.

I haven’t watched a (new) film that good in a very long time. I would heartily recommend watching it, and allowing yourself to see Charlie as something more than his obesity. Because to sit there and focus on his fatness is to misread the film, and to erase the man beneath the suit.

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