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THE WHALE: 4 STARS. “a swirl of love, understanding and empathy.”

Despite its dark subject matter, “The Whale,” Oscar nominated director Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, is coloured by a swirl of love, understanding and empathy.

Brendan Fraser, in his first leading role in nearly a decade, plays Charlie, a house-bound, 600-pound online English professor. Agoraphobic and unable to leave his apartment, the only outside contact Charlie has is his nurse and only friend Lis (Hong Chau) and the occasional visit from a pizza delivery guy (Sathya Sridharan). He is large to the point where even simple tasks, like standing up to retrieve a dropped remote from the floor, becomes a Herculean task.

“You will die by the weekend,” Lis says, clocking his blood pressure at 238/134. “Then I have to get to work,” he says optimistically. “I have papers to grade.”

Charlie suffers from a twice broken heart; once by congestive heart failure, the second by the death of his partner Alan. “Someone close to me passed away and it had an effect,” he says with great understatement. “I was always big,” admitting he binge-eats to make himself feel better. “I let it get out of control.”

Now, with just days left to live, he has one wish. He wants to repair the relationship with his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink), a 17-year-old he hasn’t seen since he left his family after falling in love with Alan, one of his students. “I need to know I did one thing right in my life,” he says.

Ellie, just eight-years-old when he deserted her, wants nothing to do with him—“I’m not spending time with you,” she says. “You’re disgusting. You’d still be disgusting even if you weren’t fat.”—but reluctantly relents when he offers to pay her and tutor her in exchange for spending time together.

As Charlie’s condition worsens, Ellie spends more time at the apartment, uncovering aspects of her father’s life with the help of a new friend, a naïve missionary named Thomas (Ty Simpkins).

Aronofsky brings us into Charlie’s world, a place where grief and forgiveness live side by side to create an intimate and compassionate portrait of a man who allowed his life to spiral out of control.

The specter of death hangs over every frame of “The Whale,” and yet Fraser manages to bring optimism to a character not long for this world. He’s looking to set things straight and make sure Ellie will have the tools to have a decent life after he goes. It is a tremendous performance that soars, transcending the stage-bound nature of the story.

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