‘That money is for Ellie!’ Charlie says to Liz again and again wheezing and coughing with the effort.
The Whale is a story of Charlie (played brilliantly by Brendan Fraser), an obese English professor who teaches online courses night and day from the confines of his apartment which looks mostly unkempt. And not that kind of obese where you are persuaded by Instagram apps to eat healthy and friends persuade you to join the gym.
He’s so obese he needs a claw to pick up a remote of a cell phone that has fallen from his hand. He’s so obese that it takes a herculean effort that is painful to watch him make an attempt to get off the couch. He’s so obese that he can place a plate with a sandwich on his tummy and use it as a table. He’s so obese, he dare not connect his camera to his online class for the fear of being ridiculed by his students. He’s the whale.
Then why am I convinced that the Oscar committee is right to nominate him for his gut wrenching performance in the film?
Because he’s doing everything he can to secure a future for his estranged daughter. He adores his daughter and feels guilty of having left her (and his wife) when he fell in love eight years ago. Ellie, his daughter, hates that her father chose to be with a man instead of her and cared just enough to send child support. She does not know that the father feels so guilty that he’d rather die than use the money to save himself. He lives like someone who has no money to call an ambulance. No money to pay hospital bills or get help for his obesity.
‘When my truck broke down in winter and I had to trudge through snow to get to you!’ Liz shouts in frustration.
‘I offered to get the truck fixed.’ Charlie reminds his friend, his caregiver, the sister of his dead lover.
‘I said no because I thought you had just $700 in your account.’ Liz is now angrier than before, ‘You could have got medical help!’
But Charlie reminds her again that he wasn’t about to touch the money meant for Ellie. Through a haze of tears I realised that my father did the same for us. He lived simply, frugally even so his kids could live better lives. Charlie in the film takes the save for your children adage a little further, but it’s an awful lesson to learn. Should we be saving money for our kids at the cost of our own health?
‘I lost someone I loved and something happened to me, ‘Charlie explains his obesity. Our heart goes out to the man who has no will to live because he lost someone to anorexia. Wracked with guilt he’s scarfing down food without swallowing. He’s dying for love.
But in his love for his daughter he does not understand that his caregiver, the wonderful Liz, played brilliantly by Hong Chau, in an Oscar best supporting actor nominated role) has sacrificed more than anyone else. She has so much to lose. She has already lost her brother and is about to lose Charlie too. Charlie is being stubborn. Liz is a nurse who will admonish him because his blood pressure is through the roof and even pummels him when he begins to choke on food. She yells at him for not chewing on the gigantic sub she bought for him and yet when she sees him calm, puts her head on his shoulder as she watches TV with him.
There is so much love in this brand of care, and it looks like she gets nothing in return. Thai unconditional love is often ignored in real life too. Why do people not realise we need to include such selfless love with some monetary compensation. Charlie knows he’s going to die. Is his love for his daughter so selfish that he cannot see Liz loves him just as much if not more? I wondered what would happen if Liz had been selfish and had duped Charlie? You may have seen the Netflix show I Care A Lot about a woman who scammed the elderly, promising them care until their deaths and then leaving them broke and homeless.
Charlie and Liz’s relationship is so beautiful, you know the filmmakers have done justice. Darren Aronofsky pitches the seemingly selfish daughter as a foil to these two wonderful people. The film uses the metaphor in Herman Melville’s book Moby Dick and asks the question: If Charlie is indeed the whale who needs to die in order for Captain Ahab to achieve redemption, then is Ellie the daughter (played by the super talented Sadie Sink) Ahab? If Ellie is responsible for pushing Charlie towards a death he’s been wishing for, then does she deserve Charlie’s love or indeed, his money?
Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication. She can be reached on Twitter at @manishalakhe.