What ‘The Whale’ teaches us about humanity and hope

What ‘The Whale’ teaches us about hope | Soho House

Plus, a rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

Monday 6 February 2023   By Matt d’Ancona

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.

Based on Samuel D. Hunter’s 2012 semi-autobiographical stage play, Darren Aronofsky’s new film portrays the wretched existence of the morbidly obese Charlie (Brendan Fraser, in an Oscar®-nominated performance) who is mourning his partner Alan and overeating himself to death.

Among the few people who visit him is his previously estranged 17-year-old daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink, familiar from Stranger Things), whom he deserted when she was eight. Much of The Whale’s dramatic power crackles in the dialogue between the pair. 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 a**holes. 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.

Fraser’s performance (in a 330lb fat suit) is simply extraordinary and – given the actor’s absence from the Hollywood front line in recent years – 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

The Whale has also sparked outrage among ‘body positivity’ campaigners who object that the movie nurtures negative stereotyping of the overweight and is therefore an affront to all fat people. But 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.

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. 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 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. 

What ‘The Whale’ teaches us about hope | Soho House


Shrinking (Apple TV+)
In this new 10-part series from the team that brought you Ted Lasso, Jason Segel plays Jimmy, a therapist who has been in chaotic freefall since the sudden death of his wife. He has also 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).

Jimmy agrees to take on Sean (Luke Tennie), a 22-year-old military veteran whose PTSD is leading to serious bar brawls – and soon moves in with him moves in with him – 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.

What ‘The Whale’ teaches us about hope | Soho House
What ‘The Whale’ teaches us about hope | Soho House


Needless Alley by Natalie Marlow 
After the ‘Glasgow noir’ of Frankie Boyle’s Meantime and Bob Mortimer’s surreal take on the genre, The Satsuma Complex, here comes a fine debut thriller enticingly billed as ‘Midlands noir’ – and set in Birmingham in the 1930s.

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 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.

A twist of fate sends William tumbling into Birmingham’s subterranean demi-monde of gay bars, bohemian hang-outs, drug trafficking, prostitution, pornography and, needless to say, murder. This is the pulp fiction of the highest quality, marking the arrival of a fabulous new thriller writer.


Marquee Moon by Television
By the time Tom Verlaine – who died on 28 January, 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.

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 punk. Even as British culture was being shaken to its foundations by the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, Television were already moving on.

Verlaine continued to produce 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.

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

Best wishes,

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
Tortoise Media