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The weight of grief

The weight of grief

Brendan Fraser’s Oscar-nominated performance in The Whale as a morbidly obese shut-in online teacher is a master-class in the quest for hope amid the despair of bereavement

“Give not thyself up, then, to fire, lest it invert thee, deaden thee, as for the time it did me. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness.” So writes Herman Melville in Moby-Dick, a book that is central to the drama, emotional tension and meaning of Darren Aronofosky’s new movie, The Whale (selected cinemas).

In this case, the “woe” is the bereavement of Charlie (Brendan Fraser), mourning his lover, Alan; and the “madness” is the chronic overeating to which he has resorted, driving his weight up to 600 pounds and confining him to a wretched existence in a small apartment in Moscow, Idaho. He teaches online writing courses, but switches off the camera on his laptop so that his students cannot see his morbid obesity and its indignities.

Hong Chau as Liz

Based on Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 semi-autobiographical stage play, the film takes place almost entirely inside Charlie’s cramped and squalid living quarters – which means that the viewer’s experience, beautifully curated by Matthew Libatique’s cinematography, is uncomfortably claustrophobic; a form of captivity aligned with Charlie’s own. He is visited by his carer Liz (Hong Chau, in an Oscar-nominated performance), Alan’s sister by adoption, who pleads with Charlie to seek medical assistance (his blood pressure is 238 over 134, and he is suffering from congestive heart failure) but also brings him the sacks of junk food he so badly craves; by Thomas (Ty Simpkins), a persistent young missionary from the “New Life” church; by his ex-wife Mary (Samantha Morton); and – most significantly – by his estranged 17-year-old daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink, familiar from Stranger Things), whom he deserted when she was eight to be with Alan.

Sadie Sink as Ellie

Much of The Whale’s dramatic power crackles in the dialogue between father and daughter. Charlie despises himself for failing Ellie and seeks to make amends; crudely with promises of money and less cravenly by seeking to re-establish an emotional connection and to bolster her crushed self-esteem.

Ellie, for her part, is a vessel filled with pain that manifests itself as bitterness, sarcasm and a sometimes savage misanthropy. As she rages at her father: “…you taught me something very important: people are assholes. Most people learn that way too late, you taught me that when I was eight. Thank you for that”. But Charlie does not believe that his daughter’s apparent nihilism expresses her true self and makes it his mission to coax out of her what he believes is a deep, if complex generosity of spirit.

Brendan Fraser as George of the Jungle, 1997

Fraser’s performance is simply extraordinary and was rightly rewarded last month with an Oscar nomination. Initially propelled to stardom by beefcake roles in movies such as Encino Man (1992), George of the Jungle (1997), The Mummy trilogy (1999-2008) and Journey to the Center of the Earth (2008), the 54-year-old has receded from the Hollywood frontline in recent years – a career dip that has been linked to an alleged sexual assault committed against him by Philip Berk, the then-president of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association and (it is suggested) Fraser’s partial blacklisting in the movie industry as a punishment for speaking out.

But Aronofsky’s decision to cast him as Charliepartly on the basis of his terrific performance in Eric Eason’s Journey to the End of the Night (2006), an independent crime thriller set in Brazil that barely registered at the box office – has inevitably inspired talk of a “Brenaissance”. Next up is his appearance alongside Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro in Martin Scorsese’s much anticipated Killers of the Flower Moon

Though it never strays into outright body horror, The Whale spares the viewer nothing in its depiction of Charlie’s massive form, the grotesque side-effects of his obesity and his profound self-loathing. Acute weight gain or loss has long been a feature of blue-chip film acting – De Niro in Raging Bull (1980), Christian Bale in The Machinist (2004), Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club (2013) – but the transformation required of Fraser was so extreme that it was achieved by utterly convincing prosthetics (including a 330-pound fat suit) and CGI effects.

Christian Bale in The Machinist, 2004

Predictably, the movie has sparked outrage among “body positivity” campaigners who object both that The Whale nurtures negative stereotyping of the overweight and is therefore an affront to all fat people; and that the role of Charlie was not given to a morbidly obese actor.

Such fury is essentially performative – who, exactly, are these 600-pound members of Equity from whom Fraser has supposedly stolen work? But it also misses the point of the movie. 

This is not a public information film about the perils of overeating or a medical homily urging viewers to count the calories and watch their waistlines. Like so many of Aronofsky’s movies – Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010), Mother! (2017) – The Whale turns physiological torment into a metaphor for psychological and spiritual suffering.

Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas, 1995

Like Ben (Nicolas Cage) in Mike Figgis’s Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Charlie has embraced his own self-destruction. Ben goes to the casino city in Nevada to drink himself to death, while Charlie stays at home and eats buckets of fried chicken, candy and meatball subs. But their purpose – to follow their demons wherever they take them – is the same. Just as Ben resists all attempts to treat his alcoholism, Charlie tells Thomas: “I’m not interested in being saved”.

Not that Aronofsky lets him off the hook for surrendering to his grief and abandoning his daughter. The brilliance of Fraser’s performance is to be found in his devastated features, the sad vulnerability in his eyes and the crushing self-knowledge that is his greatest punishment. To return to Moby-Dick, Charlie is the narrator Ishmael, Captain Ahab, and the white whale wrapped into a single character. He is wise enough to know precisely what is happening (Ishmael), obsessed by a dreadful past (Ahab) and, in bodily form, the great beast of the story (Moby-Dick). To recast the metaphor in Biblical terms, he is both captive and captor; Jonah and the whale.

Yet there is the prospect of redemption in Charlie’s undimmed belief that, however catastrophic his own failures in life, “people are incapable of not caring. People are amazing.” He discovers that Ellie has performed a great, if subtle act of kindness to one of the other characters. And his greatest comfort is an honest and compassionate essay on Melville’s novel that he reads out compulsively when distressed – the identity of its author being one of the movie’s final reveals.

Charlie is already a ghost, a gentle spirit yearning for escape from the ulcerated flesh of his massive body. He has given up on himself – but not on humanity. In that germ of optimism resides an unexpected message of hope that, in the end, defeats the madness of woe. 

Here are this week’s recommendations:


She is Love (selected cinemas, VOD, 3 February)

Directed by Jamie Adams – best known for Black Mountain Poets (2015) – She is Love is a fine portrait of unresolved emotion and the shocking abruptness with which long buried love and resentment can be summoned from hibernation by the operations of chance.

Idris (Sam Riley) is a pop musician well past his prime, forlornly re-mixing his old tracks at the boutique Cornish hotel run by his girlfriend, aspiring actress Louise (Marisa Abel). Patricia (Haley Bennett), a talent scout based in New York, checks in and is astonished to be confronted by Idris – who happens to be the ex-husband she has not seen in many years.

Awkwardness does not begin to describe the trio’s initial reaction. Inevitably threatened by Patricia’s presence, Louise tells herself: “Like my Mum always used to say: resentment is the poison you drink while you’re waiting for the other person to die.” But she cannot help being provoked by everything Patricia does: “She just blew me a fucking kiss.

Something is indeed rekindled between Idris and his ex-wife – and, in some ways, the form it takes is worse for Louise than straightforward physical attraction. What resumes between the former couple, almost instantly, is a child-like intimacy which has them playing games, arguing, and painting one another to look like ghosts. 

“We’re haunting the house,” she says – and that is true in every sense. They have shapeshifted into intruders from a complex past, and are also play-acting as their former, spectral selves. She is Love is a short, excellent film that steers clear of pat answers to the insoluble problems posed by love and the passing of time.

You People (Netflix)

A rom-com about identity politics? What could possibly go wrong? Already labelled a 2020s update of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967), You People is much less of a landmark production than the Sidney Poitier classic. Indeed, it is much better understood – and enjoyed – as an ensemble movie in which a bunch of premier league performers confront a tricky social subject, say “to hell with it”, hold hands and jump off a cliff together.

Ezra (Jonah Hill) – a Jewish broker whose real pleasure is the podcast he presents with his best friend, Mo (Sam Jay) – meets costume designer Amira (Lauren London), and, after a rocky start, they fall in love and plan to marry.

This being a rom-com, all is well until the parents get involved. Ezra’s mother and father, Arnold and Shelley (David Duchovny and Julia Louis-Dreyfus) are hilariously gauche when they meet Akbar and Fatima (Eddie Murphy and Nia Long), and the screenplay (co-written by Hill and Black-ish creator Kenya Barris) delivers some of the best lines at the expense of over-eager non-Black liberals since Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017). “You know the national anthem?” says Shelley. “I think everybody should kneel!”

Louis-Dreyfus is superb, but Murphy’s star power is still all-conquering. His expression when Ezra describes Malcolm X as “the GOAT” (Greatest Of All Time) and when he takes his prospective son-in-law to a barber shop is priceless, a reminder of his comic genius and the sheer style with which can still deploy it. 

You People is not a flippant movie, and has a number of serious and searching moments. But it never slides into earnestness – and is all the more effective for that.

Shrinking (Apple TV+)

Jason Segel – Marshall Eriksen in How I Met Your Mother and a regular in Judd Apatow’s movies – has not had a role worthy of his talents since he played David Foster Wallace in James Ponsoldt’s under-rated The End of the Tour (2015). So it is good to see him back on the main stage.

In Shrinking – the new ten-part series from the team that brought you Ted Lasso – Segel plays Jimmy, a therapist who has been in chaotic freefall since the sudden death of his wife Tia (Lilan Bowden). He has grown distant from his 17-year-old daughter Alice (Lukita Maxwell), and relies heavily on his practice colleagues, Paul (Harrison Ford, rarely better) and Gaby (Jessica Williams, also excellent).

In scenes reminiscent of Jerry Maguire (1996), Jimmy feels driven to throw out the rule-book of his profession and become what Paul describes as a “psychological vigilante”. He tells one patient in exasperated tones just to leave her terrible husband – which, to his surprise, she does. He lures another client, who is triggered by the bonhomie of baristas, to a coffee shop – leaving him to sink or swim. And – most significantly – he agrees to take on Sean (Luke Tennie), a 22-year-old military veteran whose PTSD is leading to serious bar brawls.

Off the pair go to a boxing gym; Jimmy’s reasoning being that it will help Sean let off some steam. “Or it’ll make your bloodlust stronger and you’ll become twice as dangerous,” he concedes.

Soon enough, Sean is kicked out of his family home and moves in with Jimmy – leaving us wondering which of them is really the therapist and which the patient. Generous, funny and engaging, Shrinking is already good enough to warrant a second season.


The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism – Martin Wolf (Allen Lane)

This is an excellent and (one hopes) consequential book. As the hugely respected chief economics commentator at the Financial Times, Martin Wolf is one of the most influential columnists in the world, whose opinion carries a lot of weight with the global political and business elite.

So when Wolf declares that the partnership between democracy and capitalism, “the political and economic operating systems of today’s West”, is in grave trouble, we should pay attention. There is a personal dimension to his warning: “almost to the last individual” both sides of his family were killed in the Holocaust, and he is inevitably and correctly sensitive to “the fragility of civilisation”.

The core of his argument is that the crisis of democratic capitalism is not a glitch that can be easily corrected at seminars and summits. “The Trump-led Republican Party,” he writes, “or for that matter the Johnson-led Conservative Party, did not come from nowhere. They came from 40 years of elite failure.” That will be an uncomfortable sentence for FT readers, not to mention all of us who make a living in mainstream media. It’s spot on, though.

He is rigorous in his criticism of “rentier” capitalism, whereby a tiny group of plutocrats extract more and more from the economy but inequality continues to increase. It should be no surprise, he argues, that populists have been the conspicuous political beneficiaries of this pattern.

Some will quibble with the moderacy of Wolf’s proposed reforms, rooted in a “civic nationalism” that includes more generous support for those who fall between the cracks of the labour market, proportional representation, higher taxes for the wealthy, and new competition legislation. His maxim is “never too much’, as the ancient Greeks used to say”, and there will be those who agree with his diagnosis but favour more aggressive treatment.

Such disagreements are less important, though, than the diagnosis itself which is beautifully and compellingly presented. In this case, furthermore, the identity of the messenger is as important as the message. “The great story of democratic capitalism,” says Wolf, “may end soon. Do not assume otherwise. That would be foolishly complacent.” If that’s not a wake-up call, I don’t know what is.

Needless Alley – Natalie Marlow (Baskerville)

After the “Glasgow noir” of Frankie Boyle’s Meantime (see Creative Sensemaker, 21 July 2022) and Bob Mortimer’s surreal take on the genre, The Satsuma Complex (see Creative Sensemaker, 1 December, 2022), here comes a fine debut thriller enticingly billed as “Midlands noir”.

In this case, the billing is justified. Natalie Marlow has taken the tropes, character types and dark dynamics of 1930s and 1940s Hollywood noir and transposed them to prewar Birmingham. Think Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler prowling the Fazeley Canal towpath or the mean streets of Sparkbrook.

William Garrett is a “private enquiry agent” and First World War veteran whose soul-destroying work involves setting up married women to be caught in flagrante with his actor friend Ronnie Edgerton so that their wealthy husbands may divorce them. This being noir, a femme fatale sashays into his life in the form of Clara Morton, and (of course) he falls for her.

To William’s horror, his next client is Clara’s husband, Edward, a successful businessman and rising star in Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirt movement – a twist of fate which sends him tumbling into Birmingham’s subterranean demi-monde of gay bars, bohemian hang-outs, drug trafficking, prostitution, pornography and, needless to say, murder. This is pulp fiction of the highest quality, marking the arrival of a fabulous new thriller writer.

The Diaries of Franz Kafka – tr. Ross Benjamin (Schocken Books)

Are the novels and short stories of Franz Kafka (1883-1924) still standard reading? Less and less, I think – which is a shame, as the surreal dystopianism of Metamorphosis and brutal contempt for rationality and due process described in The Trial have rarely felt more contemporary.

But even for those who have yet to encounter these masterpieces, the publication in English of Kafka’s full, unexpurgated diaries and travel writings is an opportunity to explore the mind of a literary genius and one of most important figures in 20th-century modernism. The writer’s best friend Max Brod (1884-1968) defied his wishes by refusing to destroy his work after his death. But Brod also edited Kafka’s diaries, which cover the years 1909 to 1923, to remove the rough edges, infelicities and homoeroticism from the text. What the prodigious scholarship of Ross Benjamin has delivered is the whole thing, without redactions: Kafka unplugged.

It is no surprise that the author, in his jottings, was given to profound melancholy (his existence “resembles the punishment in which the pupil has to write down the same sentence, senseless at least in its repetition, ten times, a hundred times or even more depending on his offense”) and to moments of serious strangeness (“The sight of stairs moves me so much today”).

More striking, given his reputation, are the descriptions of levity and even of pleasure. Kafka adored theatre and wrote about it with exultation (he had a particular affection for Yiddish players “who are so good and earn nothing and in other ways get far from enough gratitude and fame”). He was devoted to Brod and loved his company. Hard as it is to imagine Kafka using the abbreviation “lol”, he nonetheless recorded: How easily grenadine with seltzer goes through one’s nose when one laughs”. Such were the subtleties and complexities of “the tremendous world I have in my head.”


Diamonds & Dancefloors – Ava Max

Look: I think it’s excellent that so many successful artists now feel able to turn their mental health struggles into mainstream music; and all the pandemic epiphany albums – mixed bag though they have been – certainly include a few gems.

Equally, it is irritating when people sneer at “nu disco” or “synth pop” of the sort that fills the 14 tracks on Ava Max’s second album. True, there is nothing profound or deeply philosophical about the infectious club-friendly sound produced by the Albanian-American singer and songwriter (born Amanda Koçi). But so what? You try it some time: creating music that will dependably fill dancefloors, put rocket boosters under a workout or journey, and rack up almost 725 million Spotify streams. Perfect pop requires at least as much artistry as agonised indie-folk sung by introverted public schoolboys.

Among the highlights are ‘Weapons’, ‘Get Outta My Heart’ and ‘Million Dollar Baby’, but the album is best enjoyed in a single foot-tapping session. “Diamonds and dancefloors, that’s all I want,” sings Max – as, indeed, any true pop star should.

J.S. Bach: Clavichord – András Schiff

One of the most electrifying moments in Tár – which has received seven Oscar nominations – portrays Cate Blanchett as the formidable (and eponymous) conductor raging at a Juilliard student who says he experiences “difficulty connecting with Bach — and wasn’t he a misogynist anyway?” She invokes Albert Schweitzer’s classic study of the composer and insists that “you must service the composer. You’ve got to sublimate yourself. Your ego and, yes, your identity.”

Tyrannical as Tár undoubtedly is, Sir András Schiff’s latest recording reminds us that she has a point. Well-established as one of the most formidable contemporary interpreters of Bach on piano and harpsichord, Schiff now turns to the clavichord to perform the Capriccio in B-flat major, Two- and Three-Part Inventions, the Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, the Four Duets, and Ricercar à 3 from Musikalisches Opfer (‘The Musical Offering’, Bach’s gift to Frederick the Great).

Playing a replica of a 1743 Specken instrument made by Joris Potvlieghe in 2003, the Hungarian-born virtuoso shows how effective the clavichord is in the playing of a crescendo, a delicate vibrato and subtle polyphonic passages. As Schiff puts it, it beckons us into “a new world, a quiet oasis in our noisy, troubled times… I now play and hear Bach differently.” So much so, in fact, that he now starts his day by playing music by the composer on the clavichord. Lydia Tár would surely approve.

Marquee Moon – Television

By the time Tom Verlaine – who died on Saturday, aged 73, from prostate cancer – released this classic album in 1977, two years had already passed since he and Television’s co-founder, Richard Hell, had parted ways. But Marquee Moon was still a truly remarkable debut: one that initially flopped but is now recognised as one of the most important and influential records of the 1970s in general and the New York CBGB scene in particular.

From the band photo on its cover, taken by Robert Mapplethorpe, to the distinctiveness of Verlaine’s guitar and vocals, Marquee Moon is the absolute opposite of a cookie-cutter punk record. Indeed, the sound which Verlaine, his fellow guitarist Richard Lloyd and co-producer Andy Johns were developing owed more to rock, jazz and psychedelia than to three-chord thrash. Even as British culture was being shaken to its foundations by the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, Television were already moving on.

Obsessed by the guitar since hearing the Stones’ 19th Nervous Breakdown, Verlaine (born Thomas Miller, he had adopted the surname of French symbolist poet Paul Verlaine) was a natural musical adventurer as well as a perfectionist, whose influence can be felt in the work of Joy Division, the Smiths, Nirvana and many other bands. 

Television produced another fine album, Adventure (1978), before splitting up. Verlaine continued to release innovative music, reuniting intermittently with his bandmates, and collaborating for many years with guitarist Jimmy Ripp, who, along with Patti Smith, was reportedly with him when he died. RIP.

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner

Photographs courtesy A24, Disney Touchstone, Paramount Pictures, MGM, Netflix, AppleTV+, Signature Entertainment