Ron Howard's take on the events that inspired Herman Melville is brutal and beautiful. But is this story too big for one film?
It’s strange how rarely Moby Dick has been filmed. Aside from John Huston’s well regarded but hardly towering 1956 effort, the great American novel has never been a Hollywood obsession. The last attempt to bear the name was a terrible straight-to-DVD monster movie in 2010, starring Barry Bostwick (The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Brad) as Ahab.
Now Ron Howard tries to have his cake and eat it with a sea-faring adventure story offering furious man-versus-beast spectacle alongside the weight of Herman Melville’s book.
Howard’s approach sidesteps the long shadow of Moby Dick by instead adapting the true story that inspired it - the sinking, in 1820, of the whaling ship Essex. He then gives it a literary sheen by placing Melville in the film’s framing story, with the writing of his book as his triumphant finale.
It’s a potentially neat device, aided by the casting of Ben Whishaw – excellent in everything this year – as Melville and Brendan Gleeson as aging survivor Thomas Nickerson. But its problem is also the entire film’s problem: there’s so much incident crammed into this tale of misfortune that there’s never quite enough time to truly tangle with the sheets and sails of its meaning.
Though Nickerson narrates, Tom Holland as his younger self has far less screentime than our true protagonist, Chris Hemsworth’s Owen Chase. Chase is the off-islander first mate held back by an uncertain accent, humble roots and a father complex with no obvious relevance except to give a false impression of back story.
Chase seems destined to bump heads with privileged Captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), but their animosity quickly fades against the shared challenges of their voyage. At the height of the whaling boom, the Atlantic waters are bare of the great mammals, so the ambitious crew set off from Nantucket, Massachusetts, far into the Pacific in search of a possibly mythical offshore feeding ground.
There, they are attacked by a gigantic sperm whale that seems to act as bodyguard to his fellows. The Essex founders and the survivors are left crammed onto three jerry-rigged whaling boats in desperate straits. Their lack of food drives them to cannibalism during a months-long journey, as they struggle to stay alive and sane.
But that horrific choice is just one of the ideas touched on but not fully explored in this sprawling, scrappy story. There is a reason, after all, that Melville confined himself to the whale attack element of the Essex disaster: it streamlines the tale. By restoring the crew’s later ordeal Howard takes his film far out to sea, into territory covered by Master And Commander and Life Of Pi as well as Melville.
That’s not entirely a criticism; there are visceral and beautiful moments here to rank alongside anything in those movies. A combination of location filming in the Canary Islands and some expert CG enhancement of the film’s Leavesden sets bring the open waters and howling storms vividly to life. You can almost feel the breeze in your hair. The whaling scenes, too, show the bravery of men in clinker-built wooden boats going up against vast opponents, as well as the brutality and ugliness of their hunt.
But for all the film’s engagement with the difficulties and dangers of the whaling industry – especially timely, given Japan’s attempts to revive it – Howard’s story is too wide, too sweeping. The characters are mere sketches, and never seem as real as the sea-spray. Perhaps, in the end, this great white whale is just too monstrous for any one film to cover.