In this section of our Colossus Movie Guide for The Whale, we look at important motifs that help us understand the film.
- Charlie – Brendan Fraser
- Ellie – Sadie Sink
- Mary – Samantha Morton
- Liz – Hong Chau
- Thomas – Ty Simpkins
- Written by – Samuel D. Hunter
- Based on the play – The Whale
- Directed by – Darren Aronofsky
Important motifs in The Whale
99% of The Whale is spent in Charlie’s house. It’s dim, messy, and sad. There are some weak, orange-bulb lamps. Some windows. But the curtains are drawn. So the characters and viewer are crammed into this space for nearly two hours. Psychologically, it creates a sense of claustrophobia and pressure that lends itself to the viewer experiencing tension. Most of us don’t know what it’s like to be the size Charlie is, but we can identify with that sense of mental and physical stagnation and confinement.
Light and space
It makes sense then that at the very end of the movie that light becomes a powerful motif. The turning point between Ellie and Charlie happens after Ellie opens the front door and fresh air and sunshine flood the room. She reads her whale essay to him and we have these close ups of them washed in this light. And when Charlie dies, a bright light blossoms around him. The last shot of the beach is also very bright and open and seems to be symbolic for either a literal afterlife or just the final sense of peace Charlie has as he passes. Either way, its a stark contrast to the house that had become so much like a jail cell.
Charlie holds the whale essay in high regard. At first, it seems like that’s just because it’s a simple, well-written, honest essay. A thing any teacher might have a soft spot for. Eventually, we find out the essay is something Ellie wrote four years earlier and Mary sent it to Charlie. So there’s the personal connection to it as well. It reminds him of Ellie. It has been, for eight years, his sole link to Ellie. When he hears it, he hears her. It also serves Charlie as a kind of compass. When Ellie returns to his life, she’s incredibly mean. Brutal. Mary even describes her as evil. Charlie rejects that. He’s convinced there’s more to Ellie. That she not only can be better but is better. That’s because of the essay. For Charlie, the essay is Ellie being honest. While everything else is performative, a consequence of the pain she doesn’t know what to do with. It’s acting out. It’s through the essay he seems to break through to her and, hopefully, change her future for the better.
Food and more
Alan starved himself. It got bad. Both Liz and Charlie watched this person they loved whither. Eventually, Alan jumped off a bridge. The entire experience changed the relationship Charlie and Liz had with food. For Charlie, he started overeating. While Liz, a caregiver, started overfeeding. Even though they knew what they were doing wasn’t good, it provided both a sense of comfort and control. So they lied to themselves about how bad it was. This mutual enablement was a coping mechanism that represents an inability to process grief, guilt, fear, and anger in a healthy way.
Charlie has his facecam turned off when he teaches the online courses. He knows how shocking his appearance is. So he lies and says his camera is broken. In that way, he spares his class from having to look at him. The camera being off becomes the embodiment of not being honest with yourself or others. This false presentation that allows us to get through each day. Charlie turning the camera on becomes symbolic of finally getting honest with himself. It’s only by being honest that he can find peace before death. It’s just a shame he waited so long. Otherwise, he might have never been in such a dire place to begin with. That’s why he’s so adamant that Ellie and his students embrace honesty sooner rather than later.
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