September 17, 2022

Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “The Whale” & “Chevalier”


THE WHALE (A24 – December 9):  The fall film festivals usher in awards season, and no performance this year screams “Oscar bait” more than Brendan Fraser’s in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale.  That’s not a knock on Fraser’s work, which is sensitive and moving, just a recognition that the attention of an Academy voter will inevitably be grabbed by the sight of a leading man in a 600-lb fat suit.  In some ways, The Whale feels like a calculatedly conservative career move by Aronofsky after his polarizing and financially unsuccessful mother!, not just in its courting of awards but in the fact that it makes no attempt to hide the fact that it’s essentially a filming of Samuel D. Hunter’s play (he also created the FX series Baskets), with virtually all of the action set in the same modest house in Idaho.  But mother! was also set almost exclusively in a single (albeit fantasmagoric) house, about a man who’d made himself the center of a universe, so the new project may not be as much of a departure as it would seem.  In this case the man is Charlie (Fraser), who supports himself by teaching Zoom classes on essay writing (he tells his students that his camera is broken), while seeming somewhere between resigned and deliberate about the fact that he’s literally eating himself to death.  The extremely theatrical form of Hunter’s script has various visitors making repeated visits to his house over the course of a week, including his concerned friend and nurse Liz (Hong Chau), a Mormon-like missionary (Ty Simpkins), and most notably Charlie’s long-estranged and very bitter daughter (Sadie Sink, terrific).  Through the course of these visits, we catch up on the sadness of Charlie’s life and the reasons he may be choosing to end it via slow-motion suicide.  Fraser never condescends to or distances himself from Charlie, and he doesn’t let the prosthetics do the acting for him–his work is always emotionally shaded and complex.  The other characters are less well-drawn, existing mostly as spokes on Charlie’s wheel, with backstories that tie all too neatly together.  The Whale isn’t major Aronofsky, and the fact that Fraser is the most physically transformed actor of the year doesn’t automatically make his performance the best, but it is an absorbing, troubling story with some great acting at its center.

CHEVALIER (Searchlight/Disney – TBD):  Stephen Williams’ biography of the composer and violinist Joseph Bologne (from a script by Stefani Robinson), is set in the era of Amadeus, and even features a cameo from Wolfgang himself, who is crushed by Bologne (Kelvin Harrison, Jr) much as Mozart crushed Salieri, in a (presumably fictional) sequence where Bologne invades Mozart’s concert and not only wipes the floor with him but also seems to invent jazz and jamming on the spot.  The rest of Chevalier is, perhaps unfortunately, not as daring.  Bologne is a now little-known figure who was a sensation of his era, prized by Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) and aiming to become the new head of the Paris Opera despite being the mixed-race son of a French plantation owner and a slave.  Chevalier posits that he would have gotten there, had he not fallen too deeply for the married Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving) and alienated the diva La Guimard (Minnie Driver), which opened him up to being a victim of the royal court’s systemic racism.  Harrison has seemed on the edge of stardom for some time, with memorable performances in Luce, Waves, The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Cyrano, and he’s hugely charismatic here, as well as astonishingly convincing as a violin genius.  Robinson’s script, while colorful and engaging, leans too much into predictable melodrama, and by the time Bologne finds himself on the side of the revolutionaries he once disdained, it can feel like a series of cut scenes from Les Miserables.  In the end, Chevalier can’t quite sustain its tune.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."