It was obvious watching Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man,” Daniel Day-Lewis in “My Left Foot” and John Hurt in “The Elephant Man” that the performers had gone far beyond the normal boundaries of acting to play their characters. Each went through such a complete physical, emotional and personal transformation that the only thing left of themselves was their acting soul.
That’s what Brendan Fraser has done with “The Whale.” He has found that transformational acting moment that is so spellbinding that it hypnotizes the audience to the point they can’t turn away even if they wanted to do that. It simply is the kind of performance that is the reason the Oscar was created.
In the most stunning performance of his career, Fraser plays the morbidly obese Charlie. When he is not holding virtual classes for his English students, Charlie has been eating his way toward death ever since a tragic loss in his life. The end is rapidly approaching as Charlie’s heart can’t deal with his 600-pound body. This leaves Charlie little time to find closure in his life.
His main focus is his teenage daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) who is a teen-ager driven by savage rage sparked by Charlie leaving her and her mother when she was 8. The only thing that can curb her resentment for him long enough for them to be in the same room for more than a few minutes is the offer of a substantial amount of money.
Charlie’s hope is to give his daughter a focus that can keep her from failing out of school. He knows she has talent as a writer and hopes to use that to reconnect with her.
The screenplay for “The Whale” was written by Samuel D. Hunter based on his play. In a bit of weak writing, Hunter’s script calls for Charlie to help Ellie with an essay dealing with the novel Moby Dick. A less obvious choice would have kept with the overall smartness of the story. But, this is a minor blip in a generally strong story.
There are a few other people in Charlie’s life including Liz (Hong Chau), a devoted caregiver who shifts between great compassion and caring for Charlie to a complete frustration with his passive suicidal actions. She is emotionally anchored to him no matter how destructive the moment.
Hunter introduces a young missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins) into the mix. It opens up both the opportunity to talk about life and death and give Charlie one more chance at helping others. His heart may be too small to keep his massive frame going but it is big when it comes to wanting to find a personal and spiritual connection with others.
One of the more interesting characters is only shown on screen for a moment. The pizza delivery person tries to connect with Charlie through the closed door but shame keeps the two from making a true connection. This delivery person acts like a surrogate for the audience who is looking at Charlie’s life through tightly closed doors and wanting to know just a little more.
Director Darren Aronofsky (“Black Swan”) embraces the structure of the play in the transformation to the screen. Keeping almost all of the action inside Charlie’s dark apartment creates a sense of the closed world – both physically and emotionally – that Charlie has created.
The simple act of Charlie trying to walk to the bathroom creates a feeling the world is closing in and the painful journey is approaching an end.
None of this works without the amazing performance by Fraser. Despite the special suit he had to wear to create the 600-pound illusion, Fraser makes Charlie a character who reaches out for sympathy while at the same time driving it away with his self-destructive ways.
Fraser made his career with big action movies such as “The Mummy” and light comedies such as “Blast from the Past.” In his past work, he did not have his movements hampered and could use any acting tools to tell the story.
In “The Whale,” Fraser’s acting is almost entirely limited to his face. He finds a way to get across the pain, desperation, hope and loss that he can never eat away. Many actors would have used the makeup and costuming as a crutch for their performance. Fraser rises above the trappings to deliver a powerful emotional story that ends up brutally touching.
At this moment, it is Fraser who has taken the lead for the Best Actor Oscar at this year’s ceremonies.
“The Whale” is currently in theaters.
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Hong Chau, Sadie Sink, Ty Simpkins, Samantha Morton.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Rated: R for language, drug use, sexual content
Running time: 117 minutes.