I’m rather picky of Hollywood film adaptations, particularly when real history is involved. As a historian (of sorts), the accuracy of what actually happened is important to me. Philbrick’s well-researched book is clearly represented in the screeplay by Charles Leavitt, albeit with a few Hollywood moments. This film wonderfully depicts an 1820 sea voyage and portrays certain aspects of the whale oil business quite well. In today’s culture in which environmentalism plays a key role from business to politics, the idea of a film depicting whale hunting seems about 30 years too late to hit the theaters. However, Leavitt’s script admirably allows the culture and ethos of the 1820s to be the culture and ethos of the 1820s, without becoming preachy about the evils of hunting whales.
One aspect added to the film that was not in the book is Herman Melville (played by Ben Wishaw). The author of Moby Dick did indeed base one aspect of his great novel on the tragedy of the Essex, but to include him in the narrative of the film is a distraction. Rather than stay with the plight of the whalers on the open sea, cutting back and forth to Melville’s discussion with the last living Essex survivor diminishes some of the drama and tension. The Essex and her whalers are their own story, and bridging their events to Melville downplays the importance of their own whale and experiences (the same could be said of the recent Hobbit films, which unashamedly sets the table for The Lord of the Rings).
Visually, the cinematography successfully catapults viewers onto the deck of the ship, although some of the CGI ocean looked like…well, CGI ocean. Ron Howard’s direction, particularly in the more perilous scenes, is top notch, and the edits are quick and chaotic. The one successful whale hunt on screen is electrifying, and the filmmakers strike a proper balance between the thrill of the hunt and the plight of the whales. However, the processing of the whale blubber is tamed a bit, but after all, this is a PG-13 movie. Likewise, the later cannibalism is not shown on screen, but part of a narrative.
The pace of the film seems a bit quick for such a long journey. One moment the ship is east of South America. A second later, they’ve already rounded Cape Horn and are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Similarly, drifting for three months in a small whaleboat doesn’t seem like a big deal, as the film seems to be rushing to a close. I would love to see a 3-hour version of this film.
Other than a few characters, we don’t really get to know many of the crew, and it is difficult to be sympathetic with characters we barely know. Cillian Murphy's character, (2nd Mate Matthew Joy) was sorely undeveloped. Had the flashbacks to Melville and the surviving crew member not been in the film, perhaps time would have allowed us to get to know the crew a bit more than we do.
One primary theme in the film revolves around coming to terms with decisions and situations one has had to face in the past. Redemption, acceptance, and love are all connected to this theme, particularly the repercussions of not dealing with them. Some might argue these themes resemble those in Moby Dick. I can’t disagree with that.
Despite the great visuals, solid acting (Brendan Gleeson and Michele Fairley are standouts), and the story of all stories on the open sea, I keep wondering if this film can’t decide if it wants to be Moby Dick or the story of the Essex. This is a film that doesn’t seem to understand itself.
The novel Moby Dick begins with, “Call me Ishmael.” At least that story knows what it is.
(c) 2015 Michael C. Voigts