Brendan Fraser went home with an academy award for best lead actor in the movie The Whale. Audiences were amazed to see George of the Jungle and The Mummy’s protagonist make a successful comeback with a dramatic role that gained him critical and popular acclaim. In a moving speech during the ceremony where he was awarded, Fraser thanked Hollywood for this second chance after a long period of inactivity in his career.
The role Brendan Fraser played in The Whale was indubitably an oscar-worthy performance from the character’s conception itself. However, the film was not as well received as Fraser’s performance in terms of nominations. Taking home the best male lead and best makeup and hairstyling awards, The Whale did not receive any other nomination for Hollywood’s most celebrated evening. The Whale is a well-regarded movie among viewers and critics, but it certainly had its flaws. Of course, no movie needs to be perfect to be nominated for the best picture award, but The Whale did fall short in a couple of categories that these films usually check to be nominated.
A Conservative Cinematography
The Whale was based on a play by Samuel D. Hunter. The story takes place almost exclusively in Charlie’s (the main character’s) house. As a person living with morbid obesity, Charlie has limited movement, confined to the four walls of his home. Working as a remote University teacher, Charlie has no real necessity to go out.
The film remains true to the character’s limitations, setting the whole story within his house. The result is a small set that does not account for particularly attractive cinematography. The images describe a man constricted to a small apartment, the dialogues between him and his few visitors, and not much more. There are some occasional scenes in a more figurative style, which don’t last more than a couple of minutes. Ultimately, the camera is conservative, not because of poor creative decisions but because of the story’s limitations. In all fairness, the atmosphere is potentiated through music.
In contrast, the award-winning film Everything, Everywhere, All at Once was a cinematographic bet. Avatar: The Way of Water, on the other hand, presented viewers with a whole new ecosystem, just as if it was a new cinematic genre. Other notable mentions include Elvis, a visually dynamic way of retelling the artist’s life, and All Quiet on the Western Front, a unique glimpse at World War I’s horrid images. Ultimately, it is not a lack of merit from The Whale’s visual direction but a plot that couldn’t keep up with its ambitious competitors.
The Complexity of Representing Weight Problems
The Whale was not exempt from controversy in terms of the depiction of morbid obesity. For starters, the protagonist’s weight, though relevant to the story, is important because of its consequences: Charlie’s confinement and a terminal effect on his life. In other words, the story could work just the same if the character had a different terminal disease and decided not to leave his house. This is not a right/wrong decision but rather a problematic idea regarding obesity.
Undeniably, a certain excess of weight (determined by a competent physician) takes a toll on a person’s health. Still, the rules of representation are different in art. Changes in gender, sexual orientation, and race of characters make an impact on society. Impact works in both ways: some resist it as an act of political correction, while others see it as a chance to feel represented in what they see. Obesity runs through the same path. Historically, screens tend to show thinner or even muscled characters, whereas bigger bodies have less representation.
Brendan Fraser’s character falls into that category, appearing as a socially rejected person with obesity. Arguably, society’s ostracism of the issue is pointed out in the movie. There are multiple scenes where Charlie has to endure gratuitous commentary (and sometimes, slur) for his body. Still, his fatal destiny somehow ratifies that criticism, as there is no possible body acceptance when health is involved. Ultimately, director Darren Aronofsky respects Samuel D. Hunter’s text, which makes perfect sense. Still, the result is another message that could easily be interpreted as body-shaming, which would be only partially true but possible in a more Manichean discussion that usually occurs apropos these kinds of movies.
Though ironically called objective, the camera lens is far from it. The conjunction of conservative (or rather correct) cinematography and an opaque reflection on obesity account for Charlie’s suffering (and even pitiful) representation. Breathing heavily and wheezing, in constant sweat, and having all sorts of problems doing everyday tasks, his moments of autonomy and happiness feel short against his segments of agony. Once again, this probably honors the original text but stresses the message of obesity in terms of a disease.
The Academy Awards are also keen on controversy, but this doesn’t mean that any polemics are suitable for nomination. The Whale is still an excellent movie, with compelling messages which cannot be limited to health problems associated with excessive weight. Marketing the film as such is unfair to its beautiful depiction of relationships, the consequences of life-changing choices on loved ones, and the possibility of forgiveness and redemption in a cathartic ending. The Whale might not have been Best Picture material, but it is still a film worth watching.